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and yet so far from death

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Jaskier fumbles to turn his key in the lock, juggling bags filled with goods from the market in his arms. Bollocks, which way is this lock supposed to turn? Neither seems to be working. He gives the door a little shove, which causes two potatoes to drop onto his foot at the same time the door suddenly jerks open with a protesting creak.

“Cock it!” Jaskier gripes, and bangs his elbow on the doorframe when he hops on the good foot to dodge a third potato tumbling free. “Oh, for fuck’s—”

This kind of thing never happened when he lived with the Countess de Stael. They’d walk to the market together and she’d carry some of the bags, then hand them over to him while she unlocked the house for them both, and then they’d make delightful love while the potatoes waited patiently by the door to be put away.

There’s nobody waiting for him in this aggressively modest cottage just a bridge east of Oxenfurt’s grounds, no bright sound of laughter. Jaskier gathers up the fallen potatoes and tucks the rest of his produce where it belongs in the kitchen, then sinks down onto the boring beige couch with a sigh.

(It’s probably for the best that the place came furnished—his tastes are prohibitively expensive.)

He spends a few moments contemplating his fate, as one does when one’s foot has been assaulted by several tubers while they were already sort of thinking about the possibility they will die alone, and then the door slams shut of its own accord.

Jaskier flinches, then cautiously cracks one eye open. The pretty little set of windchimes he’d bought off a small child with both front teeth missing—oh, come to think of it, were those windchimes stolen? 

Eh, good for her.

Anyway, the windchimes jingle outside his window as the plum tree rustles outside. Just a strong breeze, then. Seems like the place might be a bit drafty, which will be nice for the summer and a pain in the arse this winter, but if all goes to plan, Jaskier will be shacked up with a wonderful new lover by then and this quaint little thing with the very reasonable price-point for something connected to the aqueduct will be a nice blip in his illustrious history. 

Yes. Blips build character.

 

~*~

 

It’s two weeks into the fall term, and Jaskier is tired of building character. His character is already fantastic. He’s beloved by fans around the Continent, by countless lovers and muses—

Well, except for the ones who dump him. And the ones who kick him out before their spouses can find them tangled in the sheets together. And there has not, necessarily, been a vast amount of time left over for friends with how much he traveled the Continent in his youth.

There’s a reason why he’s primarily famous for his jigs. And it’s been good that way, really—one could even call it preferable. He’s always been the restless type, seeking out adventures to spin into songs, and wanderlust isn’t conducive to keeping consistent companionship. Frankly, that sounds a little boring anyway. 

Which is what he is now—bored, that is, with the cottage. He’s stuffed it like a magpie with trinkets and one-of-a-kind crafts from Oxenfurt’s market, which is vast, and a spectacular painting of a chimera that he may or may not have borrowed without permission from Virginia when she gave him the boot. 

(He has, on a few occasions, quashed the temptation to converse with the chimera over his morning tea. Melitele help him if he ever gets that desperate.)

But it’s boredom, not loneliness, that puts the itch under his skin. He’s around people all day, reacquainting himself with the city of his studious youth and playing in taverns in the evenings after dinner, but the shine has worn off. The city is vibrant and vast, filled with captivating people vibrating with the joy of creating art and science in equal measure, and Jaskier’s fascination flits between them without finding anywhere to roost. 

He’s relieved when Little Eye writes to him that she’ll be wintering in Oxenfurt. She’s his oldest, dearest, and absolutely not only friend, and will make for consistent company.

Jaskier gathers up his boots where they were abandoned in the middle of his floor the night before and heads to their favorite tavern, an old haunt that catered to the student population when they were fresh-faced newcomers to the bardic tradition and has grown up with its patrons. It’s a little less chaotic now, though still filled with chipper conversation and cheap ale. 

Little Eye is sitting near the window with the same blonde mane of hair falling in her face, obscuring new wrinkles. She’s aged well since they last met, which isn’t a platitude she feels compelled to grace him with in return. 

“Julian!” she exclaims, waving her tankard in the air. “You’ve gone gray!”

Jaskier slides into a seat across from her and cheerfully greets, “Fuck you very much too, my dearest friend.” 

“And what’s crawled onto your face?” Little Eye sticks her tongue out in playful disgust, leaning across the table to scrape her short-clipped nails through his scruff. “Life as a vagabond hasn’t agreed with you.”

“My beard,” Jaskier tells her, sniffing indignantly, “makes me look distinguished —as does the touch of silver. The touch.”

Little Eye drops her hand from his face and takes a pointed sip of her ale.

Jaskier crosses his arms over his chest. “I’m a very well-respected professor of the arts at this venerable institution, Essi. Hardly any of my students fall asleep while I talk!”

“Mhm,” she says lightly. 

Jaskier sighs, pouting dramatically with his cheeks now propped up in both hands, and admits, “They wouldn’t take me seriously without the facial hair. I’m cursed with fantastic skin, like a little baby’s. A fellow professor mistook me for a student last month.”

“I’m really, sincerely heartened to know that you still have that talent for turning everything into a stroke of your own cock, friend.” Little Eye pats him on the arm. “And I promise you that no amount of hair will be enough to make anyone overlook your personality.”

“Whatever.” Jaskier leans back in his chair dismissively. “It’s better to be loved than respected, anyway.”

Little Eye snorts into her drink and says, “You don’t really believe that.”

“No,” Jaskier agrees, “but it sounds fantastic.”

“I want ten percent of your coin if it makes it into a song,” she tells him airily. “Are you gonna drink or sit there preening all night?”

“Both, obviously,” he answers, and gets up to flag down the barkeep.

He is, predictably, distracted by a beautiful woman with a cropped head of red hair who is swirling the wine in her glass.

"Hello there," he tells her, propping an elbow up on the bar with his winningest smile. "Has anyone ever told you—"

"Yes."

"—excellent!" Jaskier bats his eyelashes. "I agree with them. Can I buy you a drink?" He waves to the barkeep. "Are you a local? You seem like a local, because you're in our tavern, but I've never met anyone who actually liked the wine who was from here. You see, I studied at Oxenfurt years ago—"

"You have incredible lung capacity," the woman interrupts, sounding semi-ironically impressed.

Jaskier sits up a little straighter. "Thank you for noticing! I'm a bard—and a professor of minstrelsy, recently appointed."

"That's nice," says the woman politely. "I'm the Dean of Medicine."

Jaskier whistles. "Would you like to buy me a drink, er—what's your name?"

"Shani, happily married," she answers, raising an amused eyebrow. "What's yours?"

"Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, happily irreverent towards such institutions." Jaskier bows halfway out of his seat with a flourish. "Or Jaskier, if you prefer."

"Oh, I have heard of you!" Shani says excitedly, which makes Jaskier smile—that's always the in. In no time, they'll be—"You're the poor arsehole who bought the Mazur cottage."

Wait, what?

"I'm sorry?" Jaskier asks.

Shani smiles in a way that pretends to be very kind. "I'm sure it's fine."

"I—why wouldn't it be fine?" Jaskier taps his fingers on the bartop worriedly. "Are there rats? I knew I heard some scuffling—"

Shani ignores him in favor of the barkeep. "Yeah, another for me and a strong ale for my friend here."

"—in the walls yester—thank you, but now I'm vaguely concerned you're buying me a drink out of pity?—I knew I heard scuffling!"

Shani purses her lips together and tells him gently, "It could definitely be rats, yeah."

Jaskier gapes at her. "I'm sorry, are you patronizing me?"

"Have a good night, Jaskier," Shani tells him, and slides off her stool as soon as the barkeep hands her a fresh glass.

Jaskier leans out of his chair, following the bright spot of hair melting into the crowd, and shouts, "What in Melitele's tits is wrong with my house?"

No one answers him, but he does garner a few stares—and not the good kind.

Bollocks.

Jaskier takes his "sorry rats are going to eat your face" pity ale and glumly reclaims his seat across from Little Eye.

"Aww, don't worry, buddy," she tells him when she catches sight of his face. "I'm sure one of these lovely people will let you disappoint them sexually."

"Do you think rats are sentient?" Jaskier asks her. He takes a sip of his drink, which is nostalgically mediocre as always. "Like, do you think it would be morally reprehensible to kill them?"

Little Eye squints from behind her curtain of hair. "Not… more so than the time you legitimately considered poisoning Valdo? You've created a very specific standard for yourself."

"Excellent," says Jaskier brightly. "Ooh, what about that man in the green doublet? He looks like he'd be okay with a little wall-scuffling."

"Clarifying that this is rhetorical ahead of time, because I do not wanna know the answer," Little Eye tells him, "but what the fuck do you mean by that?"

Jaskier taps his knuckles against the table and then saunters across the bar.

 

~*~

 

The man in the green doublet is up for a little wall-scuffling, and also a second scuffle on the couch, and then a deeply gymnastic tryst on the bed that Jaskier's hips protest they are five years too old for and are overruled by his cock, which could be considered ten years too young for its own good.

Jaskier lays there panting, staring at the ceiling while sweat cools on his body, and listens to the bones of the cottage creaking like his joints. His lover— Peter, Jaskier isn't that tossed—Peter's eyes are drooping shut.

There's definitely a draft. Jaskier shivers and rolls over, draping himself across Peter's chest, humming contentedly at the extra body heat.

Peter grumbles and rolls away, taking the blanket with him.

Jaskier tugs back as much of the blanket as he can and shivers himself to sleep.

 

~*~

 

Sunlight is streaming through the windows. Birds are chirping outside, likely flitting about stealing all his plums, and Jaskier is deliciously warm. He stretches with a satisfying yawn, mindful of the sleeping form next to him, and then frowns thoughtfully when he glances down at his bare waist.

There's an extra blanket on the bed, pooling at his hips—a plush, handwoven thing he'd bought at the market last week that was intended to be decorative. He keeps it draped over the reading chair near his fireplace.

An unexpected fluttering graces Jaskier's stomach. He brushes the back of his hand along Peter's jaw, smiling softly. 

"Wha' time's it?" Peter mumbles, hiding his face in the pillow.

"Sun's well-risen," Jaskier tells him. Goddess, Peter has lovely hair, like black silk. "I'm heading to the market with a friend later, if you wanted to—"

"Aw, fuck," says Peter, sitting up stiffly. "I've gotta go."

Jaskier blinks. "Ah, alright. Maybe we could—"

"Where're my clothes?" Peter asks, shedding the blankets when he stands and scrubs a hand over his face.

Jaskier gets up too, grabbing himself a robe from his wardrobe. "I think we shed all those downstairs, darling. Has anyone ever told you that you have remarkable hair? It's like—"

Peter is already wandering downstairs. He trips over something—ah, Jaskier's lute—when he rounds the corner on the stairs, catching himself on the little end table by the couch.

"Oh, what the fuck?" he says, staring at something Jaskier can't see.

Jaskier gently rights his lute again, the poor darling, and follows Peter's gaze. 

Their clothes are crisply folded on the arm of the couch. Jaskier's boots are standing at attention by the door, as are a pair of shoes that he assumes are Peter's.

"This is a little weird," Peter says, turning his head to glance skeptically at Jaskier. "I mean, did you, like, wake up early to do this and come back to bed?"

Jaskier blinks rapidly. "I'm sorry, were you not—"

"It's just—" Peter is rapidly donning his clothes. "It's a little much, if I'm being honest? I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression—"

"—the one who—"

"—but I'm not really looking for—"

"—wait , impression?"

“—anything serious here," Peter finishes firmly. "But thanks for last night, it was fun."

He doesn't bother lacing his doublet before he vanishes out the front door, which in Jaskier's humble opinion closes more forcefully than is strictly necessary.

Jaskier gapes briefly at the door, then at the pile of clothes. He does a mental recount of how much ale he consumed in the past twenty-four hours, but it's a moot point. 

There's no amount of alcohol in the world that could provoke Jaskier into crawling out of bed in the middle of the night and folding a bunch of clothes just to leave them where they are.

He barely does his laundry sober.

Except, counterpoint: he is not, to his knowledge, an insane person, and there is no one else in the house.

The walls creak again, which is a very rude thing for them to do.

Jaskier readjusts his robe around his waist, scratches thoughtfully at his beard, and goes to make himself a cup of tea.

His favorite mug is stacked on top of a pile of dirty dishes that he's been meaning to wash for—well, it's not important how long. There's no mold. He wrinkles his nose, rinses the mug out in the sink until it doesn't smell musty anymore, and listens for the sound of the kettle whistling on the little stove.

The tea comes out bitter; it improves with a dollop of honey, which he needs to buy more of today. He drinks it at the kitchen table, listening to the birds go about their days and staring at his chimera painting, which seems to be eyeing him rather judgmentally.

"Oh, bugger off," he tells it. "It's rats."

 

~*~

 

Little Eye is lunching without him when he gets to the market, which reminds him that he skipped breakfast.

Jaskier groans at her, ignoring the raised eyebrow she gives him as she licks her fingers clean, and purchases himself three miniature meat pies from the closest street vendor.

"You're even later than I thought you'd be," she comments drily. "Was ole Green Doublet that good in the sack?"

Jaskier bites into a pie greedily, then wheezes out hot air like a dragon when the filling burns his tongue. "I was—ah, fuck, that's hot—contemplating life choices."

"Bollocks," says Little Eye. "You don't contemplate shit."

Jaskier takes another scalding bite of pie. "A woman said something— don't make a joke—a woman said something strange to me last night."

Little Eye says nothing.

He glances sideways at her as they walk through the market.

"Oh, sorry," she says innocently. "You said not to joke, and it's really the only thing I could think of."

Jaskier snorts. "It's probably not important. I think I'll probably just ignore it, realistic—ooh, honey, don't let me leave without honey—realistically, I'll just ignore it."

"That sounds more in character," Little Eye agrees sagely. "So, how'd it go last night?"

Jaskier hums, looking up at the sky while he makes a mental calculation. "It was… fine?"

"No sonnets about our new friend's beauty?" Little Eye teases.

Jaskier flicks the greasy crumbs off his fingers and mutters, "Not like he'd appreciate it."

His left hip twinges a little while he walks. He better not have pulled something; his pride would never accommodate it.

"Ooh, poor you," Essi says, sing-song, ever playing the badgering little sister. "One man in a long string of lovers didn't properly stroke your ego?"

Jaskier's smile goes tight. He takes a bite of his second pie, going a little cool in his other palm, so he doesn't pull something there, too. "I hardly need it. You know I have adoring fans all over the Continent, singing the praises of—"

"Except the Countess," Little Eye cuts in idly, bending over to inspect a wooden figurine of a horse. "I heard she kicked your arse out the back gate. That's why you're here with your tail between your legs, innit?"

Goddess. Jaskier draws up short, eyeing her sharply, which she doesn't notice through the hair obscuring her face.

"Straight for the jugular today, are we?" he asks.

"Yes, well." Essi straightens, pays a few coins for the little horse, and tucks it into one of Jaskier's pockets. "We both know you'll peacock around all day in your bravado if I let you, and I frankly don't have the time or the coin to get you drunk and get it out of you that way."

Jaskier is still holding one and a half meat pies. He frowns down at one of them, with the bite marks in it, and suddenly wonders about the shape of his own teeth.

"I don't know how you're still capable of heartbreak," Little Eye tells him softly. "Whoring around the Continent didn't work that out of you? You'll meet someone else, you always do."

But never her. Never the way the sunlight hit her plush cheeks, never the feeling of Peter's lovely silk hair. He'll look, and look, and collect notches on his ribs like he magpies trinkets for the cottage.

That's the bit that people don't understand, with their smaller, patient loves that fit neatly in the palms of their hands.

Jaskier's seeps out of his horrible leaking heart. He's always looking for somewhere to put it.

"You're right," he says, and this time the smile hits the mark. "Just a bruised ego, you know how it is. And it'll be her loss, anyway, when she hears my latest hit. Actually, I should've brought my lute, you and I could—"

Little Eye laughs, shoving him lightly. "We could meet up tonight, find a dump to perform a duet or two in, like the old days."

Jaskier laughs too. He takes another bite of his food, feeling the way his stomach still aches. "You know, it doesn't have to be a dump anymore. We've both made quite the name for ourselves."

"Yes, but it's the principle of the thing." She smirks and nudges him with her elbow. "You still remember 'Fishmonger's Daughter,' don't you? Can't get that bawdy anywhere the beer tastes good."

Jaskier smiles a little softer, letting her perk up his mood. She loves him, his oldest friend, even if she can't see all the way through him. He might even prefer it.

He doesn't know what he'd do if someone could.

They wander through the market, though, and buy little knick-knacks that they hide in each other's pockets, and she reminds him to stop for honey on the way home.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier returns home late in the afternoon, having nearly dropped his honey into the strait when a horse trotted by on the footbridge. Should he get a horse? Maybe a pony that could pull a cart for him, if he's to keep indulging in the market at this rate.

There's a fresh batch of plums ripening on his tree; a squirrel chitters and chucks a pit at him when he looks up, which he doesn't bother to dodge. It bounces off his arm.

"There's plenty to share," he tells the horrible little thing, fishing his key out of his pocket. "No need to get territorial."

He slips inside the cottage, empties his pockets of Essi's spoils, and tucks the honey away on a shelf. There is, miraculously, a clean and empty bowl left, which he takes with him back into the garden.

The squirrel retreats higher into the tree when it sees him, still screeching. Jaskier pays it no mind, reaching up to pluck the ripened fruit from the boughs. His fingertips scrape against the bark, calluses holding firm, and Jaskier is suddenly awash with a wave of nostalgia so strong that his throat closes up.

(A crisp afternoon in the courtyard, his mother sighing with exasperation, "Julian, do something useful with that energy and pick the plums for us," scrambling up the ladder to reach the tops of the trees and looking out over a world that felt so warm and vast, in that moment.)

The squirrel pelts him with another pit. Its aim is improving, as this one stings when it glances off his forehead.

The world proved large enough; it loved him how it could. He wishes it were bigger, or that he had an easier heart.

An autumn breeze ruffles the fur of his compatriot and tussles Jaskier's hair. He picks what he can reach from the ground and leaves the rest to the wild.

Back inside, the counters are cluttered. Mostly with dishes—why does he have so many dishes?—and partly with three large baskets of plums, not including the bowl in the crook of his arm.

He could put this bowl on the table, but there's a stack of compositions he needs to grade and the kettle from this morning there. Over by the couch, then, except they'll be rather close to the candles and he'd hate to take a bite of wax unawares.

Fuck, why are there so many dishes? He keeps buying more of them instead of washing the ones he has. It's absurd. 

Maybe he should just… throw them out. Start over. It would take so much effort to clean them all now, and it's not like they won't just get dirty again, anyway, which is the worst part of chores and their horrible, neverending—

(Goddess, did he really never do the dishes for Virginia? He was such an arse. No wonder she—)

No, this is fixable. He can fix this. He's just got to make room for a bowl of plums. He's a respectably middle-aged man, he can do that.

(Would anyone notice if he threw all the dishes out? He'd buy more tomorrow—support local craftsmanship and all that.)

Melitele, he's going to die alone. He's going to die alone, and when they find his body there will be dirty dishes covering every inch of the place and the squirrels will be nesting in his lute and—

Jaskier's eyes fall to the lute just then, which is conveniently propped up against—

The brandy-making barrel. One of the many furnishings that the previous owners enthusiastically agreed to leave him when he bought the place, having informed him that they had been so happy in this little cottage that they hardly felt the need to drink anymore, and thus had no need for such an item.

(In retrospect, he probably should have been more suspicious of the… rat problem. But it was on the aqueduct.)

"This will fix it," Jaskier announces to the room at large, possibly the chimera painting, specifically, and opens the barrel to start dumping plums inside with fervor. "Yes, this is perfect, this is what the gods intended plums to be used for, anyway. I'll just—" he dumps in the second basket. "I'll just—what's the word? Macerate. I'll macerate all these plums and it'll be fine."

He finishes that task, seals up the barrel again, and then sets the empty baskets and bowl back on the counters.

It's oddly silent, then, which is obviously to be expected—it's not like he wants the chimera painting to answer him, that would be ridiculous.

There's still quite a lot of dishes.

"It's fine!" Jaskier says brightly, and plucks his lute up and flees upstairs to warm up for tonight. "It's fine."

 

~*~

 

Jaskier sings rounds of "The Fishmonger's Daughter" with Little Eye until his voice goes hoarse, which he conveniently does not need with his face buried between the pretty barmaid's thighs. He climbs out her second story window when the rooster crows to avoid her parents, tucking and rolling when he hits the ground.

The water sloshes against the shore as he picks his way across the bridge, back to the eastern island where his cottage awaits. Gods, does he have a headache. The swill at these dumpy taverns of his youth doesn't agree with him like it used to—he recalls two- or three-day benders that make his stomach turn just to think about now.

Nothing a good bath won't fix. He stopped by his favorite seller of bath herbs and oils last week and has been too preoccupied to try any of her new blends. That'll be the first thing he does today, after he unlocks the front door.

Jaskier stumbles inside, wincing at the squeaking hinges, and then stops short as he's turning to latch it behind him.

The dishes are gone.

All of them, in fact. In the sink and on the surrounding countertops, and even his favorite mug which had been abandoned on the floor next to his reading chair.

Jaskier blinks very slowly. He keeps his eyes closed, and breathes three times, and looks again.

It's all very tidy in here now.

"No," he decides loudly, setting his key on the end table. "Absolutely not."

He crawls onto the couch and falls back asleep.

 

~*~

 

The dishes are in absurd places. Not in the sense that they couldn't theoretically belong there, just that they're all in precisely a configuration that Jaskier personally finds incredibly offensive. The bowls are next to the cups instead of with the small plates, which are on top of the big plates. His silverware goes fork-knife-spoon instead of spoon-fork-knife. 

Who puts knives in the middle?

Even worse, his favorite mug—and only his favorite mug—is on top of the cabinets instead of inside them. He has to climb on top of his brandy-barrel to get it down.

"Very mature," Jaskier mutters. "Very mature, harmless rats living in the walls."

His lute falls over from across the room. 

Jaskier jumps—then, having nothing to glare at, scowls at the chimera painting. "If you touch my lute again, I will exorcise you myself, you—you—whatever in Lilit's name you are!"

The lute rights itself.

Jaskier is pretty sure that's ghost for 'fuck you.' He laughs, covering his mouth with one hand, and then pales slightly.

"Bollocks," he says, and flees out the front door.

 

~*~

 

Courses are not in session today, but Jaskier is relieved to discover that there is no rest for the academic—at least, those higher ranking than him.

Shani, who is indeed the Dean of her department, is bent over a stack of letters at her desk and frowning thoughtfully at an inkwell when Jaskier knocks on her open door.

"Oh, hi, Jaskier," she says, setting the pen down in its well. "Can I help you?"

Jaskier sighs melodramatically and drapes himself across a chair opposite her. "You could have told me it was haunted."

"I'm pretty confident the subtext was there," Shani answers. "Aren't you a poet? Your lot loves subtext."

"Do you know what we also love?" Jaskier asks, lifting his head with some effort. "Text."

"Ah." Shani rests her forearms on the desk. "I'm pretty sure your cottage is haunted."

"Thank you," Jaskier says. "Was that so hard?"

Shani shrugs. "Nothing's been substantiated, obviously. I've heard a few people took a look over the years—even a Witcher, once. Someone from the School of the Griffin."

Jaskier perks up at that—he's always been fascinated by Witchers. "But nothing came of it?"

Shani hums in the negative. 

"Okay, so, like—" Jaskier straightens properly in his chair, gesturing with both hands for emphasis. "Am I going to die, though? Is this the kind of ghost that will kill me? Because if it's leave the cottage or death I will very gladly take leaving—you know, over death by ghost."

"Stop saying 'death,'" Shani rebukes. "You'll hex yourself."

Jaskier crosses his arms petulantly. "It doesn't work like that."

"Who's asking who for advice?" Shani taps her fingers on the desk. "And anyway, there's only been one suspected death."

"Only?" Jaskier repeats, spluttering.

"You'll understand when I tell the story," Shani tells him. "Unless you're ready to pack up and live in your office."

Goddess, no. Jaskier is moving to a pile of furs on Essi's floor.

"Fine," he says. "What's the story?"

Shani leans back in her chair. "You've gotta understand that this ghost has been around a long time."

"Surely not that long," Jaskier says. "Not when I was a student."

Shani snorts and says, "It absolutely pre-dates you being a student."

"No, that's impossible," Jaskier protests, frowning. "I think I would've heard if—ohh. You know, now that you mention it, I do kind of recall something about a haunting. I never really gave it much thought."

"Too busy chasing skirt?" Shani asks drily.

"And breeches," Jaskier adds cheerfully. "I'm an equal opportunity trollop."

Shani smiles thinly. "Congratulations. Can I continue my story? I do have actual work to accomplish today."

Jaskier makes a 'please continue' gesture with his hand.

"This ghost had already been around for a long time at this point," Shani tells him. "With no serious harm to anyone, though obviously there were rumors."

"Sure," Jaskier agrees. "Who doesn't love a good ghost story?"

"And then this lovely older couple moved in after the previous inhabitants were tired of feeling… watched," Shani continues, ignoring him. "He was a well-respected man. Specifically hired by the university for his expertise. And his wife was very sweet, by all accounts, though I hardly knew her."

Jaskier fidgets in his chair, crossing his legs. "And?"

"She was quite clumsy, his wife," Shani says slowly, an edge creeping into her voice. "Always explaining away bruises that way—if you catch my meaning."

Jaskier purses his lips together and nods with a jerk of his head. He does.

"He died in the middle of the night." Shani steeples her fingers on the desk with little ceremony. "Broken neck. There was an investigation. She let them bury him in the pauper lot."

Well. 

"Sounds like she did him in herself, if you ask me," Jaskier says. Then quickly adds, "Not that I blame her."

Shani shakes her head. "I performed the autopsy myself. Do you know how much force it takes to actually break a spine like that? It was the most precise job I've ever seen, and I served in the war. The wife didn't have it in her, physically—emotionally, I don't know."

Jaskier wets his lips nervously. "So what happened to her?"

"She started making massive amounts of brandy out of her cottage and sold it at the market," says Shani. "Lived there peacefully for the rest of her days. They've had trouble keeping it in consistent ownership ever since."

"Well, that's not nearly as terrifying as you built it up to be," Jaskier says. "So, what, it's some kind of vigilante karma ghost? The abusive husband gets his comeuppance and I get misplaced silverware for being mildly annoying?"

Shani raises an eyebrow. "That's not… necessarily… what I meant, but sure."

"Hm," says Jaskier. "Okay."

"Okay?" Shani repeats.

Jaskier nods, getting to his feet. "Okay! Thank you for your valuable time, I'm gonna go find somewhere to have a spot of lunch, and then I really should get on grading those compositions."

"Sorry," Shani says, holding up a finger. "Are you staying in the cottage, then?"

Jaskier blinks at her. "It's on the aqueduct."

"Right," she agrees sagely. "Of course."

"And you said it yourself—" Jaskier makes a sweeping gesture with one hand. "The odds of horrible death by ghost are very slim unless you plan on being a terrible person, and I am at worst mediocre, morality-wise."

Shani purses her lips, nodding slowly. "Enjoy your lunch, Jaskier."

"And you yours!" he wishes her brightly, and leaves her to her very important medical college business.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier has a pleasant lunch. It's some kind of stew; he wasn't really paying attention when the options were presented to him. The air has a slight chill in it today, which in his opinion is very appropriate ghost weather. 

If he'd realized what he was getting into over the summer, the imagery would be all wrong. It'll make the eventual song a lot better, being thematically appropriate.

Yes, Jaskier thinks to himself, hand hovering over the doorknob, autumn is the best season for a ghost. It'll be fine.

He walks back inside the cottage with his chin up, whistling a jaunty tune. It's not like much has changed, really—he still basically lives alone. He still tosses his boots across the room as he wriggles his feet free and sighs forlornly at the stack of papers on the kitchen table.

Another mug of tea. That will help him get into the mood for grading. He has to play these compositions and provide feedback on their structure and sound, because that's what responsible professors do. He will absolutely not just give them each a cursory squint and make up something nice to say and then go to sleep.

Maybe some wine, actually. In the mug.

Jaskier relocates to his reading chair, his lute in one hand and his mug of wine near his elbow. He plucks out a few of the submissions, which are all actually serviceable for a group of novice students. 

It becomes repetitive quickly, though, and he sighs loudly.

"Ghost roommate," Jaskier asks idly. "I don't suppose you can play the lute, can you? Take half of these off my hands?"

A pillow hits him in the back of the head.

"Don't be rude," Jaskier tuts, glaring in the direction of his couch, though of course nothing is there. "You don't even pay rent. You could contribute to the household a little."

A cabinet creaks open, pointedly revealing a clean stack of dishes.

"Incredibly petty," Jaskier mutters, but he licks his thumb and turns to the next composition. "Invisible little bastard."

He scribbles his feedback onto three more pages, and if he plays a little louder than strictly necessary, well—no one can prove anything.

When he looks up next, his wine is on top of the cabinets again.

Jaskier hides a smile into his mug when he finally gets it down. This might actually be fun.

 

~*~

 

The next morning, Jaskier's boots are upright next to the door and his lute is missing. He kicks a boot over out of spite and upturns the entire cottage, and eventually finds the damn thing hiding in a pile of dirty laundry.

"Genuinely?" he asks, his voice ticking up a little. "Genuinely?"

There is, of course, no answer. 

 

~*~

 

The next week of classes keeps Jaskier busy. He manages to grade all of his students' compositions and give rather fair feedback, if he does say do himself. They're a good bunch; some of them could be great. And he likes teaching, at the end of the day—lecturing, inspiring young minds.

(And being admired.)

He has dinner and an ale or two with Little Eye a few times, and even coaxes Shani to their table once when they run into her at the tavern. 

It's good, his life. More peaceful than he imagined it being when he was young, but he supposes he's not that anymore. And there's still plenty of trouble for him to get up to, when he wants.

It's such that at the end of the school week, when a heavy rain moves in that threatens to turn to sleet, he doesn't mind so much at being kept in. 

For the first hour or two, anyway.

Jaskier is curled up in his reading chair, the fireplace and an extra candle giving him light. He's mildly engrossed in a novel, though it isn't particularly speaking to him, and the silence is starting to make his skin itch.

"This is nice, isn't?" he says aloud, tapping on the book's spine. "Just the two of us, spending some quality time together."

There's no answer.

Jaskier slumps down further in his chair, propping his cheek up on the back of it and staring out the far window. It's dark enough outside that he can't tell how hard it's raining anymore.

"Do you like the rain?" he asks, but receives no response again. "Are you there, ghost roommate?"

He hears the sound of a boot knocking over.

"I've always been partial to it, for literary purposes," Jaskier continues, satisfied that he had an audience. "You know, water falling like tears, washing sins away, et cetera. But it's rather dreary sometimes, isn't it? I should probably be writing if I'm stuck inside, but it’s just— blech, you know?"

The ghost rights his boot again.

"Though I suppose it must be dreary for you all the time, right? Being stuck inside and all." Jaskier frowns thoughtfully. "At least, I assume you don't leave. Can you leave?"

The door knob jiggles ineffectually.

"That must be rather lonely," Jaskier says softly. His ghost doesn't answer, which makes it moreso. He thumbs restlessly at the pages of his book, then manages a small smile. "Well, since we're both housebound for the evening, would you like to read with me? I'll let you turn the pages. Oh, or would it be easier if I read aloud? I used to read to Virginia, she always said—"

Jaskier breaks off, clearing his throat.

"Well," he says brightly. "That doesn't matter anymore."

There's a prolonged silence. He can't hear the rain on the roof from the first floor, but it splatters against the windows with a melancholy insistence. He thinks about his friends across town, himself across the years. The candlelight casts shadows on his stolen painting.

A book topples from Jaskier's bookshelf to the floor.

He jumps, knocking over the candle and nearly catching his sleeve on fire.

"You did that for dramatic effect!" he complains, scratching the hard wax off the fabric before it stains. "I've seen you hold things, you know."

To emphasize the point, the book is rather elegantly plucked off the floor and placed in Jaskier's lap.

He sighs, setting aside his novel, and peers at the new selection. 

"The History of the World?" he asks with a laugh. "You know, my dear ghost, I can't tell if you're playing a joke on me or genuinely just rather boring."

The book flips open to a chapter near the middle—a favorite, perhaps?

Jaskier smiles wryly, scratching at his beard, and muses, "You know, I used to carry this book with me specifically to hide a bottle of vodka behind it in lecture. History was my second favorite subject, behind geography, for this very noble reason."

There's a measure of rustling in the kitchen, and then an unopened bottle of spirits and a drinking glass are being placed beside him.

Jaskier laughs again. Something loosens in his chest when he works the bottle open—a private thing, tasting like lethal plum brandy and hard bread in the back of a lecture hall.

(He hates it, in the same breath—that he pictures Essi with the wrinkles smoothed out by memory, that he dreams of cheap swill that he swore he'd never buy again once he'd made a name for himself.)

But, "Well met," he tells the fireplace, and toasts before the first swig. He coughs lightly; he'll have to go easy on the drink, if he wants his throat to last well enough to narrate the night. 

"Let's see," he says, moreso to himself, scanning ahead before he begins to read. "Alright. 'Towards the middle of the tenth century, a group of sorcerers gathered in the stronghold of Caer a'Muirehen to create a mutant with which to combat the monstrous creatures which inhabited the Continent. This process…'"

 

~*~

 

Jaskier awakens with a horrible crick in his neck. He yawns, bleary-eyed, and curls his fingers against the still-open book in his lap. There's a blanket draped over his shoulders, making the back of his neck sweat.

He's got no idea what time it is; the candle looks like it's been blown out, to preserve it, and the fire is burning low and secretive in the hearth. He's not cold. The wind howls outside and the dreary cottage bones creak in protest of the rain.

It's a good season for ghosts. Jaskier feels the quiet pain of something in his throat, that horrible loneliness that comes on the wings of something else that was not that feeling at all. 

He's not cold. He carries the blanket, which was meant to be decorative, up to the bed with him, and thinks very carefully about the way good vodka tastes like an absence.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier fumbles with the key in his pocket one-handed, the other one very much taken up by a palmful of Sara, a lovely woman who works at the university, may or may not be married, and is doing something delightful with her tongue.

"Sorry," Jaskier mumbles between kisses, and finally procures the key. Sometimes his ghost will unlock the door for him, but there's no such luck today. "Just one more moment—"

He gets the door open and pulls her inside by the waist, and then she screams at approximately the same time a plate shatters on the floor.

Jaskier purses his lips, then turns around slowly. The sink faucet, which was running and frothing up a load of dish soap, creaks shut. 

Ah, well. At least it wasn't his mug.

"Not to worry, darling, and sorry for the fright," Jaskier explains, smiling cheerfully. "It's just the ghost."

Sara has gone rather pale.

"The—the ghost?" she splutters.

"Ah, yes, I have a bit of a roommate situation, but don't worry—they don't have to watch." Jaskier turns back in the direction of the kitchen, tilting his head. "At least, I don't think you do. Do you?"

The ghost, ignoring him, procures a broom and begins sweeping up the mess on the floor.

"I'll take that as a 'no.' In any case, where were—"

The door, which Jaskier hadn't even noticed opening, slams shut. He catches a glimpse of Sara's skirt as she bolts around a bend in the road.

"... Well, that's rather anticlimactic," Jaskier says. He grabs the dustpan from where it's resting against the wall and holds it for the ghost, who sweeps shards of clay plate into it. "Sorry for startling you."

The broom handle taps him lightly on the head.

"Yes, well." Jaskier dumps the plate in the trash. "Can't win them all."

He puts the dust pan away and then sinks down next to it on the floor, tilting his head back against the wall. 

The sink turns back on; Jaskier listens to the sound of bristles scraping against a wooden bowl.

It'll be just the two of them, then.

"Well, my dear ghost, you will not believe the day I've had," Jaskier says. "I was hoping for a distraction, but that's gone out the front door, so I do dearly appreciate you lending an ear."

The tap turns up higher.

"Rude. Anyway, it all started with a letter Valdo Marx wrote to me at my university address—I found it on my desk first thing in the morning, can you believe that?" Jaskier smacks his hand against the broom from gesturing so emphatically. "And he—ow—and he had the nerve to congratulate me on my retirement from bardhood. Retirement! Like I'm some—some horse put out to pasture and not a distinguished—"

Jaskier stands back up, tugging at his collar. He begins unbuttoning his doublet one-handed, the other still arcing through the air while he talks.

"—professor. Retired, my arse! I don't see the most prestigious university of the North inviting Valdo to lecture for them. And, you know, I have half a mind to set out on the road again just for the principle of it, if it weren't for—" Jaskier cuts off abruptly, clearing his throat. "But he's got some bloody nerve, that pretentious arsehole, and it left me in a mood all morning. Makes me feel better about that time I considered a little poisoni—" 

The ghost flicks him with water.

"Oh, don't judge me, I said a little poisoning, and it's not like I went through with it." Jaskier sheds his doublet and drapes it on the back of a chair. "It's a banal fantasy, anyway, I could do much better. Though, a more original death would be wasted on him."

Jaskier paces the length of the kitchen once more, his bout of agitation somewhat satisfied, and then joins his doublet at the kitchen table. His ghost patiently stacks a plate on the drying rack.

"You don't think it's true, do you?" Jaskier asks quietly, perhaps to be drowned out by the sound of running water. He stares at the chimera painting, its gruesome and lovely head. "Is the best of it behind me?"

The tap shuts off, though there are still dishes left in the sink. Jaskier taps his fingers on the table, staving off the bout of melancholy in sudden silence, and then his lute is being laid against his thigh.

A smile spreads softly against his face. He picks up his darling and strums an impromptu chord or two, fingers gliding across the strings. 

"You're right," he says, and reaches for his writing journal. "It's past time for a new song."

 

~*~

 

Jaskier rejoins Essi and Shani at their table with a flourish, flushed and happy from his latest performance and having spent the coin tossed to him on a round for the entire tavern. Melitele, he'd nearly forgotten how wonderful it felt to create something new.

Shani raises an eyebrow at him when he drains his previous tankard. "I refuse to believe that anything in that song actually happened."

"I'm sorry," Jaskier says indignantly, despite the fact that she is absolutely correct. "Whose ghost is it? Not yours, I think."

"Hold on, are you staying you do have a ghost?" Little Eye asks, drawing up her spine in a huff. "I thought—why didn't you mention?"

It was absolutely intentional. There was plenty of opportunity.

"Did you not know?" Jaskier asks, widening his eyes. "I could have sworn I told you."

Little Eye scowls at him, but the barmaid puts down the ale he paid for just then, and her demeanor softens in favor of having another drink.

Shani, meanwhile, is eyeing someone from across the room. "Oh, hello—that man is handsome, isn't he?"

"Erm, not that I have room to judge," Jaskier says, "but what happened to you being happily married?"

"Oh, I made that up so you'd stop flirting with me," Shani says absently.

"Understandable," says Jaskier. He turns to follow her gaze. "Oh, wow. If you don't go talk to him, I will."

Shani, apparently taking this as motivation, brings her ale with her.

Jaskier turns back to Essi, who is pouting at him.

"Oh, come off it," he tells her. "It's not like you've never kept a secret."

"Well, now you have to spill," she answers. "What kind of ghost is it?"

"No idea," says Jaskier. "I haven't given it much thought, I suppose. I can't see them, but they can touch things. Move my dishes around, things like that."

Little Eye frowns. "Well, is it dangerous?"

Jaskier shrugs. "Not statistically."

"Not statistic—" Little Eye sighs. "Did you buy the place haunted on purpose?"

"I had no idea, but I'm flattered you think I have the bollocks to do that," Jaskier says cheerfully.

Little Eye rubs at her temples.

"It's the same place that was haunted when we were back in school," he adds. "Do you remember that?"

"Hm," says Little Eye. "I was too busy being in love with Priscilla to notice much of anything back then."

"We were all in love with Priscilla," Jaskier tells her. "You're not special."

Essi rolls her eyes. "Thank you, dear friend."

"I do wonder what she's up to, though," he muses, glancing idly behind himself to check on Shani—she seems quite content in her conversation. "Last I saw of her was when she went on that impressive tour a few years ago."

"I heard she's lecturing here in the spring," Essi says nonchalantly.

"What?" Jaskier narrows his eyes at her. "How do you know that?"

Essi examines her nailbeds. "She wrote me."

"I beg your pardon? When—" It dawns on him. "Wait just a minute. Essi Daven, did you move to Oxenfurt because you heard she'd be here?"

Little Eye smiles and tips her tankard at him in a toast. "Nothing can prove that."

"I thought it was to see your dearest friend again!" Jaskier puts a hand to his chest in mock-offense. "I thought we had a bond that ran deeper than any—"

"Don't work yourself up." Essi waves him off. "You're like a brother to me, our friendship is eternal, et cetera, et cetera. And it's Priscilla."

Jaskier remembers his ale. He drinks from it, watching her hair obscure her face in the same hopeless way it did when they were young.

"We really are all coming home to roost, aren't we?" he asks her wistfully. "Do you think we're over the hill?"

"Absolutely not," she answers, offended. "At least, not the last one. We've just… grown, a little."

Grown. Jaskier's fingers drift to his lute, resting against his knee. He plucks absently at a string and says nothing.

"I do think about it sometimes, though—how much I traded for the life I've led." Essi's smile is a melancholic rarity. "I'm past the age of having children, now."

Jaskier looks up at her. "You could still very well be a mother. There are several orphanages—"

"No, I know. And I'd honestly prefer that option, anyway." She placates him with a roll of her wrist. "But, Julian—do you ever feel as if…"

Essi brushes the hair away from her face and fixes him with two earnest eyes, shining in the bustling tavern light.

"As if someone's turned you to the next chapter without your permission?" he suggests softly.

She smiles again, warmer this time. "But it's not all bad, is it? We've seen the world, met so many people…"

"And we can afford better liquor now," Jaskier adds.

Essi winks. "Without having to hide it behind our school books."

"Oh," says Jaskier, "and I don't suffer an embarrassing erection whenever there's a stiff breeze anymore. That's first-rate."

"That one is less relatable, but I'm happy for you."

Jaskier laughs. He props his chin up in one hand and smirks fondly. "I think it's been good, hasn't it? Sometimes I…"

He trails off, but she waits patiently for him.

There's a peal of laughter that draws Jaskier's attention; a young woman is draped across a man's lap, kicking her legs as he tickles at her ribs. 

"I forget," Jaskier admits.

"It's been good," Essi tells him. She holds up her tankard, half-full and still sloshing. "Here's to the rest of it."

Jaskier wets his bottom lip and meets her in a toast.

 

~*~

 

He stumbles home completely tossed later that night, teeth chattering in the inky cold, and finds the cottage unlocked to receive him. 

There's a chill even indoors, with no fire in the hearth. Jaskier puts on a log to burn, feeling too restless to sleep, and puts the kettle on too. An evening tea will soothe the drum of his fingers.

"Sorry I'm late," he says while he putters about. "Bit of a night. Goddess, I sound like a schoolboy, you don't care where I've been, do you?"

A clean mug nudges against his hand.

"Thank you. You know what, though? It's nice." Jaskier spoons himself out a measure of tea into a sachet to brew. "Having something to come home to, I mean—which is an embarrassing thing to say, probably, seeing as you're, well—you know. No offense, of course."

The kettle whistles shrilly, which makes him wince. He'll probably be hungover in the morning.

He reaches for it, but it floats away from him with that eerie grace before pouring the steaming water into his mug.

"You're very good to me. I know I'm a nuisance." Jaskier takes his mug back to the couch, where he lets the water burn his fingers through the warming ceramic. "You probably wish someone quieter had moved in, I bet. Oh, I think Little Eye—she's like my sister, you'd love her—I think Little Eye is plotting to seduce our old classmate come spring. I'll let you know how it goes."

The plum tree's leaves rustle outside the window, which is seeping cold air.

"It's getting—" Jaskier yawns, slumping down a little. "—cold as a drowner's bollocks out there. Can you feel the cold? I hope you can't."

There's the damn blanket again, which Jaskier has abandoned all hope of staying in one place and looking pretty, draping over him. He yawns wider, wrapping himself up in the soft knitting.

"I hope you get to feel warm," he murmurs. His eyes are drooping shut, thick with ale and sleep and fluttering against the steam from his undrunk tea. He says the words quietly, perhaps such that they don't even make it past his lips—but he hopes that they do. "That's how I think of you."

 

~*~

 

The song spreads across the city—perhaps beyond it. This is flattering, as always, and potentially a mistake.

Jaskier meets Maja at the market. She has freckles covering every inch of her face and peeking out from under the edges of her thick coat, and is the rare combination of age-appropriate and unmarried that means she might actually want to see him more than once.

He buys her winter flowers and kisses her bright red nose, and enjoys several wonderful afternoons of conversation with her before she asks to see his cottage.

There's an early snowfall brewing—just a flake here and there, for now. They look lovely catching in her fiery hair; he could be moved to poetry over it. 

The cottage unlocks for him and there's a fire already going in the hearth, which is sweet of his ghost. The windows have started frosting over in the evenings.

Maja frowns when she sees the fire, putting her hood down. "Is someone else here?"

Remembering the last time, Jaskier laughs thinly and says, "No, of course not."

"Your song about the ghost, then," she asks warily. "It's just metaphorical, right?"

"Yes, of course, absolutely metaphorical," Jaskier brightly assures her. "No ghosts here."

The chimera painting falls to the ground.

"Bollocks," says Jaskier.

"I'm just gonna go," Maja says. "It's not safe—"

"What?" Jaskier's eyes widen. "No, please don't leave—they're completely harmless, I just—"

Maja pulls her hood back over her hair. "Then why did you lie?"

"I don't know," Jaskier admits, running a hand through his hair. "I just didn't want you to—"

"See you around, Julian."

"—leave," Jaskier finishes, watching the door close behind her. "Fuck."

The lock turns smugly on the door of its own accord.

Jaskier scowls, nursing the pain in his chest. "You couldn't have just—just played along? I liked her!"

The metal fire poker prods a log in the hearth.

"And now you're ignoring me?" Jaskier crosses his arms over his chest. "Oh, that's just brilliant. Thank you so much for your help redecorating! Maybe you'd like to suck my cock as well, since apparently you don't want anyone else to do it."

The fire poker rests against the side of the fireplace again.

"You know what?" Jaskier snaps, and reaches for a thicker coat. "Don't expect me back tonight."

He checks that his key is still in his pocket and shrugs into the coat when he's already halfway out the door. 

 

~*~

 

Jaskier trudges through the building snowstorm into town, then spends the majority of the evening on his knees.

He's in the home of a lovely couple who seem more than happy to have a third, if the way they welcome him into their bed after everyone is spent is any indication.

It's… nice. The man is pressing a line of kisses up Jaskier's shoulder blade while the woman plays with his hair, and there's this horrible restless guilt crawling under Jaskier's skin.

He hates not staying the night, when he's able to. It feels so impersonal to re-dress with the sweat still cooling on his body, to not share those sweet murmured things under one's breath while the blankets shift and resettle, and Jaskier is trudging through three inches of snow to get himself home.

The door is locked. He worries, briefly, that the hinges have frozen shut, before he manages to to force it open with a braced shoulder.

The fire's gone out. Jaskier lights a candle before anything else, and finds that his painting is still on the floor where he left it.

His ghost is not, he knows, beholden to doing anything for him—but it still feels sour and strange, coming home to this hollow place.

"No commentary on my failures necessary," Jaskier announces, stamping his boots clean in the entryway before tugging them off. "You can lord it over me in the morning."

There's no response. Jaskier rubs his hands together and goes to relight the hearth; his fingers are clumsy and numb, fumbling with the flint, and the first two times he ignites a spark, a draft seems to douse the flame before it can catch. 

It finally takes. He closes his eyes, breathing, feeling the feeble heat. With more light to see by, he inspects his lovely chimera for damage.

Aside from a hairline crack in one corner of the frame, she seems to be in fine order. He lifts the painting and hangs it on the wall again, giving it an affectionate pat. There's still no movement from his ghost, which disquiets him further.

"It's really turning nasty out there," he tries, reaching for his kettle, hands fidgeting nervously now that he has feeling in them again. "I'm glad I made it in when I did—if it doesn't let up overnight the roads may be difficult to navigate. I think I have my winter boots in the chest upstairs. They're not nearly as fashionable, but neither is missing toes due to frostbite, so I suppose sacrifices must be made."

Silence. 

"Are you there, ghost?"

The cottage creaks, possibly with the weight of snow on the roof.

Jaskier sets the kettle to boil and pads across the room to his couch, where the blanket is folded neatly against the back. He curls his fingers in it and picks it—

The blanket doesn't budge. Jaskier frowns, wondering if it's caught between the couch and wall. He tugs harder, hoping to yank it free, and is met with even firmer resistance.

Suspiciously firm resistance.

Jaskier rarely loses his temper. He considers himself to be an agreeable person, if not prone to the occasional decades-long grudge.

But he is cold, and wet, and the kettle begins to shriek from above the fire in sharp counterpoint to how gods-damned quiet it is in his aching heart.

"Oh, yes, very good," Jaskier says, barking out a laugh. "I get it now—you're playing along for me now, are you? No ghost in this cottage, no sir!"

The kettle is shrieking.

"Well, I am sorry about it, you know," Jaskier tells the blanket, which is still taut in his hands. He lets it go, hands up in defeat. "I'm sorry I tried to hide you and I'm sorry you apparently can't understand how fucking lonely I am, because if you did maybe you wouldn't be throwing a tantrum like a child."

Jaskier swallows thickly, each breath coming up short. It's horrible. It's so horribly quiet and the kettle is shrieking and he can't, for the life of him, understand any of it. Can't bring himself to.

"And I know you're lonely too, and I suppose I might be all you have," he says, softening. "And I don't want to be ashamed of you. I just… don't want to be lonely. I've never told anyone that bit, you know. It's unbecoming."

The kettle is shrieking.

"Do you want to know the worst part?" Jaskier asks. His smile trembles. "I did meet someone tonight. Two someones, actually. They wanted me to stay, and you know how that hardly ever happens. And yet, here we are."

It's too dark to see outside. He imagines that it must still be snowing; it's the thematic choice.

"You're where I want to be," Jaskier tells the windows, the cottage's old bones. "Please, come back."

The blanket folds into his hands; the kettle is pulled from above the fire. The door unlocks itself.

Jaskier laughs gently, curling the soft knitting in his fingers before wrapping himself up in it. He realizes that he never measured out his tea when he watches his ghost do it for him.

"Might that be a symbolic gesture of my emotional freedom?" he asks, moving to the door to re-latch it. "Or are you still angry at me and giving me the boot?"

There's a pause as the kettle is placed on the counter, and then one of his sopping wet boots is quite literally being handed to him.

"Sarcasm is a dangerous game nonverbally," Jaskier warns idly, but he drops the unpleasantly damp thing to the floor, unbothered. "I could take you at face value and freeze to death."

He's quite sure that worse could be done to him, if that were the intention.

But his tea is steeping on the counter for him, and the fire has grown in the hearth until it crackles boldly, and there are gentle things, good things, under the ache.

Jaskier clears his throat, suddenly finding it tight. He rescues his mug from the kitchen and retrieves their latest novel from the arm of his reading chair.

"I think we may be able to finish this one tonight," he says, licking his thumb as he turns to the proper page. "If this old man doesn't fall asleep on you. What do you think?"

Although Jaskier is already holding a bookmark, his ghost slips a second one into the book, maybe fifteen or twenty pages from the end. 

Jaskier laughs brightly. "Placing bets, are we? We'll see—guess I better get started. 'Janosik laid in wait for the merchant caravan in the wood at the base of the mountains, his band of thieves hiding their glinting swords in the brush. When the sun sank low in the—' You know, I'm shocked they haven't made this a ballad. Do you think I should write a ballad?"

The bookmark moves closer to thirty pages from the ending.

"Oh, you're horrible to me. You're a horrible ghost." Jaskier takes a sip of his tea. "'When the sun sank low in the sky, they finally heard the clanking of wagon wheels in the hard packed dirt…'"

 

~*~

 

They do not finish the novel. Jaskier drags himself to bed exactly one page after the bookmark—on principle—and wakes up to the smell of cured meat frying for him downstairs.

He narrates the rest of Janosik's adventure over breakfast at the kitchen table, pausing at regular intervals to observe the state of the snow outside their window. When he goes to venture into the yard to toss his spare crumbs to the birds, he finds that his winter boots have been laid by the door.

 

~*~

 

“Do you think it looks like snow today?” Jaskier asks, craning his neck to peer out the window without sitting up from his recline on the couch. “I told Little Eye I’d go to the market with her, but they’ll close it if it snows.”

There’s no answer, possibly because there’s no convenient way to provide one to such a question. Jaskier sighs and sits up so he can pry the window open a crack.

“It smells like snow,” he decides, shutting the window before the chill seeps in. “But if it doesn’t snow, and I don’t meet her there, I look like an arse. What do you think?”

The front door unlocks.

“You’re probably right,” Jaskier agrees. He sighs, slumping back down against the arm of the couch. “You know, I’ve been thinking—”

The door locks again.

“Very funny. I’ve been thinking that there’s got to be a more convenient way for us to communicate.” Jaskier lolls his head in the approximate direction he assumes his ghost is. “Don’t you think? … I can’t tell if your silence is ironic.”

Jaskier rolls to his feet when he still doesn’t get an answer.

“I mean, we have parchment,” he says, procuring some from the case he brings to work. “And I know you can hold things. Can you write?”

The ghost plucks a dry quill off the table and tosses it onto the ground.

Jaskier frowns. “Should I assume that means ‘no?’ Is it the, erm, fine-motor of it? Or do you not know how—”

He catches a mouthful of feathered quill.

“Well that is—pfft, you know this tastes disgusting, right? That is just unhelpful!” Jaskier wrinkles up his nose. “Have you tried?”

The ghost uncaps Jasier’s inkwell and takes the quill to paper. Slowly, and with what seems to be great effort, they draw what Jaskier believes is intended to be a ‘C’—except that the ink evaporates in a wisp of black fire that smells suspiciously like rotten eggs as soon as it touches the page.

“Fascinating.” Jaskier peers at the parchment, which is entirely unmarred. “If I were a man of science, I would stu—oh, come off it with the feather, you’ll cover me in ink! Was that a ‘C?’ You were writing ‘C?’”

The quill taps against the paper and creates two little bursts of flame. 

Jaskier tilts his head. “Well, if you go very slowly, I can make out the letters. Give me the next one.”

The ghost hesitates.

“Oh, indulge me, you big grump,” Jaskier tuts.

The flames are noticeably larger this time, with a commensurate increase in stench. The bright side of this is that the large ‘U’ is much easier to track.

“Hm. Is this an elaborate prank you’ve constructed in order to insult me?” Jaskier teases. He’s prodded with the business-side of the quill for his trouble. “Ouch. That was clearly a ‘U.' Give me the next one.”

The entire paper engulfs in horrible obsidian fire that does not, by any account, appear to be vanishing this time.

Jaskier yelps, gags on the smell, and snatches up the paper by one corner in a mad sprint to the sink, where he douses it with a forgotten mug of yesterday’s tea before it can conceivably burn the gods-forsaken place to the ground.

(Probably should've let the ghost do that bit.)

Despite the hold Jaskier had on the paper, he comes away unburned—although his index finger and thumb shimmer with a black soot that appears to settle below the skin. Lovely.

“Right,” says Jaskier, glaring at the quill, which is still hovering above the singed table. “Spelling ‘curse,’ were you?”

A feather has never been set down more smugly in all of the Continent’s history.

“I admit that option is impractical.” Jaskier holds up his stained hand as he returns to the table. “What are the odds this will wash out with a little elbow grease? Maybe a nice lavender soak?”

The quill wobbles noncommittally before resting on the table again.

Jaskier tests his grip on it, pinching it between his two fingers. There’s no pain or reduction in sensitivity, thank the gods. “Eh, it’ll make for a good story. So, writing’s out, but you’re able to answer my questions nonverbally, when you’re not being a contrary bastard, as we’ve established. So we just need a more convenient way of…”

His gaze lands on the pot rack which hangs above the sink. 

"Well, hello! I'm a genius." He gestures in their direction. "You can reach those, right? I mean, you're tall enough to hide my mugs from me, so I assume."

The ghost knocks on each of the pans in turn.

Jaskier claps his hands together. "Excellent! Why didn't we think of this sooner? Knock on the leftmost pot for 'yes,' and that frying pan next to it for 'no.' That works, right?"

The frying pan taps against the wall. 

"We've talked about the sarcasm, dear."

Yes.

"It does work!" Jaskier says delightedly. "Oh, there's so much to ask—we can have actual conversations! Er, sort of, anyway. You were saying I should go to the market earlier, right?"

Yes.

"Do you find me terribly annoying?"

Yes.

"No, see, the pot means 'yes,' remember?"

Yes.

"You're horrible to me." Jaskier crosses his arms over his chest. "Horribly mean ghost. I could still exorcise you, you know."

The ghost knocks on a third pot, on the opposite side of the frying pan.

"Well, I have no idea what that means," Jaskier says. He drums his fingers on the table. "Erm, not to be terribly awkward, and I'm really content whatever the answer is, I just don't want to… mischaracterize—what's your gender? Left pot for 'woman,' frying pan for 'man,' right pot for 'neither?'"

Man.

Jaskier smiles. "Shall I refer to you as 'he,' then?"

Yes.

"Excellent! Oh, you know, I wonder if you could spell your name without setting the kitchen on fire?" Jaskier gestures at the pot rack. "I'll run through the alphabet and you can hit something when I get to the letter, hm?"

Yes.

Jaskier drums on the table again. "Maybe fill up a pitcher of water first? Oh, or I can—"

The sink turns on.

"Thank you. Well, let's hope this works. A… B… C… D… E… F… G—"

Yes.

"'G?'" Jaskier asks, and pinches the bridge of his nose preemptively. Nothing bursts into flames, which is honestly a bit anticlimactic. "Ha! How's that for a loophole! Fuck you, curse!"

His ghost hits the third pot again.

Jaskier blinks.

"I'm sorry," he says slowly. "Are you trying to tell me that you want to dedicate an entire mechanism to saying 'fuck you?' Because you cannot be telling me—"

Yes. Fuck you.

Jaskier bites back a grin. "Alright, fine, you arse, just finish spelling your name."

He dips his quill in ink again and scrawls the letters out as they go, just to ensure he keeps track, until after the last letter the ghost— Geralt, his name is Geralt—says, No.

"Geralt, then?" Jaskier asks, and it feels… good, on his tongue. Like it belongs there, in this house. "Am I pronouncing that right?"

Yes.

"Geralt," Jaskier says again. It touches his tongue to the back of his teeth; it would sound good in a song. "Is there any way for me to help you?"

It's quiet for a long time. Jaskier knows the answer before it is tapped into the metal.

No.

Jaskier clears his throat. Outside their little windows, it begins to snow. There won't be a market, but there will be this.

"Well, then," he says softly, as a splintering log spits embers in the hearth. "I guess you'll just have to make do with me."

There is no answer in the kitchen. Geralt lifts another log and places it gently into the fire, where the bark sizzles and catches. 

 

~*~

 

They are subsequently graced with three days of favorable weather, which Jaskier spends finishing the last of his lectures for the fall term and drinking himself warm in his favorite tavern to blunt the cold.

Shani and Little Eye both live on the near side of campus to the eastern bridge, and offer to let him lodge with them during the school week. If he were a wise man, or at least a practical one, he'd accept.

Jaskier is a poet; he walks home and finds dinners kept warm for him above the roaring hearth.

On the fourth day, Jaskier returns his students' end-of-term compositions and wishes them safe travels home to see their families over the winter hiatus. He watches the classroom empty with an odd melancholy, sharply remembering the days when he was the chittering youth bolting for the door.

"But not to go home," Little Eye reminds him when he laments as much that night. Her feet are propped up on an empty stool and she's leaning against Shani's shoulder. "To get drunk with me in the dormitory."

"Sounds about right," Shani agrees. "Did you lot drink that plum brandy that was a glorified sleeping aid? I think our upperclassmen brewed it in—"

"Bollocks," Jaskier realizes suddenly. "I've got a barrel."

Little Eye frowns at him suspiciously. "What?"

"I've got a barrel," repeats Jaskier. "Where can I find a still? Oh, I thought I was going to lose it over the break, but this will be perfect!"

"Nowhere," says Shani. "Sun's set, the market's closed. Where would you even—"

Jaskier chugs the rest of his ale. "The old woman—the one Geralt helped. She made the stuff professionally?"

"Who the fuck is Geralt?" Shani asks.

"My ghost," Jaskier answers idly. He plucks a few coins out of his purse and sets them on the table for his tab. "Did I not mention that? Anyway, did they sell her things when she died? I stuffed a load of plums in a barrel a few months ago."

Little Eye snaps her fingers in front of his face. "Are you having a stroke?"

He waves her off.

"I have no idea," Shani tells him. "They probably did sell most of it. It was nearly ten years ago, I haven't kept track of everyone who's owned the place."

"One way to find out!" Jaskier says cheerfully. "I'll make it strong so we can all sleep through this miserable winter together. Love you both, see you tomorrow night?"

Little Eye blinks at him. "Same place as always?"

Jaskier is already shrugging back into his coat. This is the best idea. He can't believe he almost forgot about the brandy-making barrel—what a stroke of crisis-induced genius.

He hurries home, which is actually more pleasant to do earlier in the night before the temperature finishes dropping, and calls, "Geralt, how could you let me forget about the plums?" as soon as he gets through the door.

Geralt is holding a knife, halfway through cutting a carrot. He does not put the knife down before rather forcefully indicating, No.

Jaskier is busy shedding his layers; the air was dry again today, which was a blessing. "What do you mean, 'no?'"

No, Geralt says again.

"That doesn't clarify at all, thank you so much." Jaskier stamps his boots free of snow and begins to unlace them. "There's a load of junk in the attic, isn't there? Is the old still still up there?"

… No.

"Don't lie to me," Jaskier tells him. "You must have been truly horrible at it as a human, if you can't even do it as a ghost."

Fuck you.

Jaskier kicks his boots off, makes it halfway across the room, then thinks better of it and doubles back to stack them neatly by the door. He then darts up the stairs and searches for the ladder to the attic, which pulls down from the ceiling via a little door with a leather rope.

The door slams back shut when he tries to pull it open.

"Oh, don't be that way!" Jaskier tugs on the rope again; the door creaks against the opposing pressures. "My parents made brandy every year when I was a child! I know what I'm doing."

They did, now that he's sort of thinking about it, usually bar him from the room due to his propensity for running around and touching things with neither self-preservation nor respect for his surroundings. 

This is not a detail he feels compelled to share with Geralt.

"Honestly, Geralt, you're being entirely—"

At this juncture, the door suddenly and rather rudely gives way, allowing the ladder to spring free and dumping Jaskier firmly on his arse.

"Uncalled for!" Jaskier winces, hip twinging when he gets to his feet, and then tests his weight on the ladder. It creaks gently, but holds. "You should be nicer to me—I'm a delicate man."

So saying, he scrambles up into the attic and peers around; he'd only briefly inspected up here when he was buying the place, already smitten by the open space downstairs and the soaking tub on the second floor. The previous owners had left him nearly everything in the place—which he suspects may have been a trend, given the state of the attic—in their hurry to vacate.

Perhaps they feared the curse would follow them. It was, Jaskier thinks smugly, as he watches Geralt bring a candle up the stairs for him, very much their loss.

"Thank you," he says, taking the light carefully. There's a little window up here that will be serviceable when the sun is higher in the sky. 

As it is, he brings the candle with him and inspects the various abandoned keepsakes for utility in bootlegging. He quickly locates boxes of faintly perfumed letters, a rather odd animal skull, and what may or may not be instantly recognizable to him as leather bondage gear—the personal effects of either three separate occupants or the most interesting singular human he's ever had the displeasure of failing to meet.

"Did you live here before… well, you know?" Jaskier asks absently, flipping over what promises to be a painting but is blank on the other side. "I mean, is any of this yours?"

Geralt plucks three letters from their box and lays them in a row, then flips over the second one.

"Ah, clever." Jaskier wanders further into the attic. "So that's, 'no,' then?"

Yes.

"What got you into this mess, then?" Jaskier asks. "Jilted lover?"

No. Fuck you.

Jaskier smiles ruefully. "I didn't expect so."

Geralt flips the first and second letters at once, which Jaskier has learned indicates indecision or confusion.

"'How do I know?'" Jaskier clarifies. He lifts the edge of a burlap tarp, carefully holding the candle at a distance. "Because I know you, my dear— ha, here it is!"

While larger and significantly more complicated than he remembered this sort of thing being, the still is unmistakable. It looks newer than the ones from his childhood, which makes his hip hurt again.

"Hm," Jaskier says thoughtfully. "Geralt, my dearest compatriot, I don't suppose you'd be willing to help me get this all down?"

He turns his head to observe Geralt offering him a very pleasant, No.

"Ah, well, that's fair." Jaskier rubs his hands together and clumsily lifts the rather large copper apparatus, threatening mildly, "I suppose I'll just have to hope I don't fall carrying this and crack my head open on the landing. They'd probably assume you offed me, you know, and I suppose they'd be right—poor Jaskier, a bard cut down in his prime, slaughtered by the stubbornness of his only fri—"

Geralt yanks the container out of Jaskier's arms and puts it back on the floor.

Fuck you, he says, then tugs another, smaller tarp free from what it was covering—which is a  much more compact and modest-looking still.

"Knew that was there the whole time, did you?" Jaskier asks cheerfully, and moves to pick this apparatus up himself.

Geralt snatches it away before he has the opportunity and begins to carry it down the ladder.

Jaskier bites his lip with delight, then gathers up the rest of the components under his arm.

Downstairs, there's a pot of stew on the table, which Jaskier assumes was previously cooking on the fire, and Geralt is hauling the brandy-making barrel over—which he appears to do with very little effort. 

"Interesting," Jaskier tongues at the inside of his cheek, setting the rest of the still's components on the floor. "Are you moving that with the power of ghost magic, or were you a big strong man in life, Geralt?"

Geralt doesn't answer him, choosing to busy himself with working the barrel open.

"Oh, don't be grumpy about it," Jaskier teases. "It's a professional curiosity, you know—my songs would be much better if I could add some little details like that. No one else knows where you came from after all."

Geralt pries the top off and drops the lid to the floor with a petulant carelessness.

Jaskier covers his nose and mouth—the smell is truly awful. He is, however, undeterred from his noble quest. "Just a few details, Geralt! Like, what color hair do you have? Were you a bubbly blond? Or a sultry brunet, perhaps, like yours truly?"

Geralt flicks a rather soggy piece of fermented plum onto Jaskier's cheek.

"Blech." Jaskier wrinkles his nose and wanders over to the sink to scrub his skin clean of stench. "With that temper—you were a fiery redhead, weren't you?"

There's still no answer. Geralt begins the careful process of tilting the barrel over the open still to pour the plums inside.

"Oh, let me get you a tarp!" Jaskier bustles back up to the attic, retrieving the still's previous covering. He finds Geralt waiting patiently, which means he hasn't made him cross enough to ruin the floors on purpose, at least.

He pauses his line of questioning, though, as they spread the tarp and Jaskier holds the still steady while Geralt pours.

"You know how to do this, then?" he asks instead, his voice nasally from the hand pinching his nose. "Making brandy, I mean. From the woman who lived here?"

Geralt sets the barrel back down carefully when the still is full. He taps on the pot and frying pan in the kitchen.

Jaskier twists his mouth, parsing it out. "You mean, 'how do I know that?' About the woman?"

Yes.

"My friend, Shani, who I've mentioned," Jaskier explains. He attaches the top to the still and slips the receptacle underneath the long spout. "She's a doctor with the university—performed the autopsy on that horrid man."

Geralt is quiet.

Jaskier carefully lifts the still to rest above the fire—it fits neatly, like a pot or his kettle would, but there's nowhere to put the receptacle.

Geralt drags the kitchen table over and stacks a thick book on top, which provides a platform of sufficient height.

"Thank you." Jaskier nudges the still to center it better. "You did the world a service, if you ask me. Should've made this place more attractive. I should've had to sell an organ to get to live here."

No.

Jaskier frowns. "You don't think so?"

I don't know.

Something tightens in Jaskier's chest.

"Well, luckily for you," he says firmly, "I do. You were protecting someone who couldn't protect themselves."

Geralt moves the empty barrel back to its resting place in the kitchen.

"Well, you can grouchily tell me if I remember how to do this, then," Jaskier says, trying to keep the mood up. "We'll keep it on the heat for a few hours to distill it, if it doesn't knock me out in one sip we run it through again?"

No. 

"Don't be a spoilsport." Jaskier clucks his tongue. "It's not an authentic bootlegging operation if the stuff doesn't raze your nose hairs."

No, says Geralt, rather forcefully.

"I used to drink plum brandy like this with my friends, back when I was a student here," Jaskier continues, conveniently ignoring Geralt's objections. "Those are some of my best memories of back then—all cooped up in the dormitory together, gossiping and playing drinking games. Did you have times like that?"

No.

"Too busy being on the straight and narrow?" Jaskier teases.

Fuck you.

"Yes, there's a lot of that going around from you tonight. Something you want to tell me?"

Geralt fills a cup with water and places it on the kitchen table, then taps on the pot of stew.

"Oh, silly me, I did almost forget," says Jaskier. He drags a chair over to the displaced table and spoons himself dinner into a bowl. "See, you put on a good show, dearest, but I know you. You like me."

Geralt does not answer this particular statement.

Jaskier is content to eat his dinner, which is delicious—and answer enough. He chews thoughtfully, feeling the heat from the fire thrown onto his face.

For a while he eats in silence, save for the faint sounds of nature and the still gurgling, and then he stretches with a pleasant yawn and asks, "Shall I read for you? I guess I better stay up to watch the plums, eh?"

Geralt pulls a book from the shelf and leaves it in the reading chair for him. He brings his water and curls up on the far side of the fire, glancing at the title.

"Ah," he says, smiling warmly. "I thought you'd like this one."

He'd borrowed it from Oxenfurt's library yesterday afternoon; while Geralt indulges Jaskier in whatever he chose to read, Jaskier has discovered he is partial to non-fiction. 

Jaskier certainly does not share this sentiment, but he’s willing to compromise. And this is a recently published work detailing changes in several major monster breeding grounds in Redania—the exact kind of snooze-fest his ghost would love.

"'This detailed account was made possible by the generous donations of our patrons, Sir—'" Jaskier tuts. "I'm just going to skip to the good part. You don't care about these people and their money, do you?"

No.

"Didn't think so." Jaskier licks his finger and turns the page. "Just prod me with something if I fall asleep, dear. 'The selkimore has traditionally been known to require…'"

 

~*~

 

Jaskier startles awake to a rather foreboding sort of squealing sound coming from the still, which probably isn't the most encouraging of signs.

It is, however, stemmed quickly with a twist of a valve, which Jaskier certainly isn't responsible for from his chair. 

"Geralt?" he murmurs, blinking first at the waning fire and then as the book in his lap, which he'd barely made a dent in before nodding off. "You didn't have to let me sleep. I wanted to read to you."

Yes.

Jaskier rolls his eyes fondly. He gets up from his chair, ignoring his joints' protest, and fumbles for a liquor glass in the kitchen. 

"Suppose we better test how it's coming along, since I'm up now." He runs a sample through into his glass, giving it a cautious sniff. When it doesn't threaten to kill him and his firstborn child, he downs the whole thing. "Hm, needs longer, I think. I haven't seen a single goddess yet."

Geralt prods the fire, apparently resigned to his fate.

Jaskier's chest feels tight, which could be from the liquor. He closes his eyes, resting his glass on the table from memory. It feels, in that moment, very much like he could be alone.

"I don't care what you look like, you know," he says quietly. His eyes are open now; the cottage feels bigger at night, when the windows are flat with darkness and don't reveal where anything ends. "Or who you've been. I think we belong here. I don't know that I've ever felt that way—that there was a place for me."

There were things that were his, yes—his music, roads lined with signposts and the echo of his lute, muses he would collect and bury in the corners of this leaking heart of his. 

But nothing to claim him back.

Slowly, Geralt pulls another book from the shelf—it hovers above the table, for a moment, like he's considering putting it back. But down it's set, and Jaskier comes around to read the cover.

It's The History of the World again, which they finished some time ago. Jaskier frowns, dragging his fingers over the embossed script.

"You want me to read this again?" he asks. "The selkimore weren't doing it for you?"

No.

Geralt flips to the same chapter he chose that very first night, which feels so long ago that it could be a dream, as distant as his reminiscing on pilfered liquor. 

Jaskier purses his lips, scanning the opening paragraphs. "Are you… trying to tell me something?"

Yes.

"About you?"

Yes, a little impatiently.

"I…" Jaskier says, a little helplessly. "Were you a sorcerer?"

No.

"But then—" Jaskier looks up with widened eyes. "You were a Witcher. Geralt, of course! You're Geralt of Rivia, the—" 

Butcher. They all heard the stories, didn't they?

Jaskier wets his bottom lip, the aching thing catching in his throat. 

"From the Wolf school, aren't you?" he says, swallowing with conviction. "Oh, Geralt, to think—we could've been quite the pair even then, couldn't we? I could've been your barker, singing tales of—"

No.

"Oh, don't be that way. It would've been grand." Jaskier spreads his arms wide, sleep forgotten. "I travelled so much of the Continent already—imagine how much more I could have seen with you looking out for me."

No.

Jaskier snorts. "You can't act like you wouldn't have. I know you, Witcher. I know your heart."

Geralt is silent.

"What, are we done being a smartarse for the night?" Jaskier teases warmly.

No.

Jaskier's laugh is fond. He closes the book with a gentle flick of his wrist. 

"But you do, don't you?" he asks, glancing at the murmuring hearth. "Look out for me."

Geralt's answer comes tentatively, so soft that it barely rings against the iron, and Jaskier receives it with a patience that wraps around his ribs.

Yes, Geralt says. Yes.

 

~*~

 

"Geralt," Jaskier asks a few days later, reclined idly on the couch as he toys with the chorus to a new song. "How would you feel about having a little party?"

I don't know.

"Just with a few friends," Jaskier clarifies. "People who know about you. We could break open the brandy and have a nice dinner, maybe indulge in a little reminiscing."

I don't know, Geralt says again.

Jaskier lays down his lute. "What's your hesitation? Are you worried I'll wind up with alcohol poisoning? Because I think that's far more likely to happen if I try to drink it all alone."

No.

"Mm, then, what?" Jaskier muses. "You're not worried about meeting them, are you?"

Fuck you. Yes.

Jaskier places a hand over his chest. "Aww, sweetheart. Well you don't have to worry about that, because I am an expert entertainer, and you can hide away in my room instead if you'd like. That would be perfectly appropriate ghost-behavior, I think."

… Okay.

"Oh, thank you!" Jaskier claps his hands together, gently displacing his lute and hopping to his feet. "Should we do formal invitations? I think I saw some blank stationary in the attic. Here's what I'm thinking— 'You are cordially invited to join hosts Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, and Geralt of Riv—'"

Geralt hits all three pots at once, which Jaskier assumes loosely translates to, What the fuck?

Jaskier pauses at the foot of the staircase. "Which part of that do you take issue with?"

The middle part.

"My name?" Jaskier asks. "Did you not know my given name?"

No.

"Ah." Jaskier waves a hand dismissively and moves quickly up the stairs. "Hardly anyone refers to me that way anyway—except Little Eye. I prefer 'Jaskier,' if I'm being honest. But an invitation should be formal, I think."

He tugs down the door to the attic, testing to make sure the ladder is locked into place. "Do you remember where that stationary was, dear?"

Geralt procures it quickly, along with a rather dusty calligraphy set.

"Ooh, this will be—" Jaskier sneezes; Geralt, rather drily in Jaskier's opinion, hands him an equally dusty handkerchief from a neighboring box. "You are so kind, thank you very much. This will be perfect."

 

~*~

 

They send out invitations, which Jaskier is mocked mercilessly for the following evening.

("You put these through the mail?" Shani asks.

"You addressed them from your ghost?" asks Little Eye.)

Geralt helps him carry a collection of furs down from the attic, and a few spare ones from the guest bedroom. They spread them out in front of the fire and move the couch from against the wall, creating a very nice little area, if Jaskier does say so himself.

They're in the process of preparing a stew for everyone when someone knocks on the door.

Jaskier takes a break from cutting potatoes to welcome their guests; it turns out to be everyone at once, the two parties having met on the road.

Little Eye comes bearing bread to accompany their meal and spirits, and Shani's lover, Jakob—the same man she approached in the tavern that day—has prepared a winter pie for them.

"You're all too kind!" Jaskier says, gesturing excitedly. "Come in, come in! We're still working on dinner."

He ushers everyone inside, latching the door behind them, and flits back over to the kitchen. Geralt is nearly done preparing the meat Jaskier bought from the butcher earlier today.

Jaskier leaves them to get settled and returns to preparing the vegetables. "Please, make yourselves at home! We'll be ready soon."

They all take this to mean they should crowd into the kitchen while Jaskier and Geralt cook.

"Wow," says Little Eye, tearing off a chunk of bread as she gestures at the two of them. "This is weird."

"You get used to seeing things floating about," Jaskier tells her, smiling at the knife Geralt is holding.

"Not that," Little Eye says, snorting. "I know how ghosts work. I'm talking about the fact that you're helping in the kitchen."

Shani snickers.

Jaskier gasps dramatically, putting a hand on his hip. "I can cook! I survived some forty-odd years on my own, you know."

"If by 'on your own,' you mean, 'off of tavern food and beds you charmed yourself into,' then, yeah, sure," Little Eye agrees.

"Okay," Jaskier says, perhaps a little defensively. "I admit that I have previously enjoyed a stint or two as a kept man, but I do know my way around a knife, which is something my lovely guests should keep in mind."

Shani kicks her feet up into Little Eye's lap. "Geralt can settle this one for us. Did you have to train Jaskier to be helpful, Geralt?"

Geralt puts his knife down and says, Yes.

"He says, 'no, I've always been a delight,'" Jaskier informs them cheerfully.

Fuck you.

"What'd he really say?" Shani asks drily.

"'Yes, he trained me'—which in my opinion is a very rude way of describing the bond we share, dearest—and then that I should fuck off."

Jakob rests his elbows on the table curiously. "So that's how you communicate, then? With the pot rack?"

"Or something similar," Jaskier adds. "We've put together a few places around the house."

"Why not just have him write?" Jakob asks.

Jaskier wiggles his fingers, which are still stained with a streak of glittering soot. "Nasty curse, I don't recommend it. Great parlor trick though."

No.

"Oh, hush," Jaskier tuts. "It all worked out fine, didn't it?"

Geralt dumps the bits of meat into the stock without further comment.

 

~*~

 

Dinner is a pleasant affair at the table, filled with good conversation and only a little more commentary on Jaskier's recently manifested domestic abilities.

(He grins and bears it. It's not like he's been intentionally adverse to the whole thing. He likes being helpful and hates being treated like a bother, like nearly everyone else. There's no way for him to express that it's been difficult, is all—that it still is, without the benefit of Geralt's patience.)

They learn a lot about Jakob, who seems to be a thoroughly decent man. A good match, Jaskier thinks—and Little Eye seems to agree, from the looks she shoots him periodically. There's a general sort of envy that comes with it—not over either of them, specifically, but the idea of it. The way hands are held under the table, the gentle trading of kisses.

After everyone is fed and the dishes are soaking in the sink, they pull out Jaskier's plum brandy and pile onto the floor by the fire. 

Geralt helped him bottle the stuff, which makes it feel particularly official. They have mis-matched drinking glasses which have been the result of Jaskier's magpie-tendencies over the course of several months, and are sipping the brandy to avoid passing out on the nice furs immediately.

"Whoo," says Little Eye, coughing lightly when she takes another sip. "You really went authentic, huh, Julian?"

"This's the light version." Jaskier gestures sloppily with his glass. "Geralt bullied me into stopping the second distillation early."

Jakob laughs. "How'd you get bullied by a ghost?"

"Oh, he's very good at it," Jaskier assures him. "Geralt, bully me."

Nothing happens.

Jaskier crosses his arms in a pout. "Well, not he's not doing it because people are—"

Geralt smacks him on the back of the head with a pillow.

"— thank you, see?"

Shani snorts into her glass and says, "I could've predicted you like getting beat up."

"I—" Jaskier's face heats up. "Not in that way! Or, I mean, also in that way, but that isn't—"

"He's always been like this," Little Eye agrees. There's a glint in her eye that feels entirely unencouraging. "You like getting into trouble, admit it."

Jaskier needs more brandy. He takes a larger drink than may be strictly advisable, feeling his stomach curl warmly.

"I just have a talent for it, that's all," he says breezily. "It would be a shame to waste my gift for being an absolute terror. Besides, it makes Geralt's afterlife more interesting. Right, Geralt?"

Fuck you.

"He agrees with me."

Shani pours herself another modest measure of liquor. "Goddess, I think the last time I drank this stuff, I ended up climbing the dormitory roof in only my underwear."

"Right?" Jakob asks, leaning forward in commiseration. "What is it about the plums that does it to you?"

"It's like—" Little Eye hiccups. "Wine gets ya maudlin, of course, and then there's vodka for a bawdy party, but—brandy, you're either naked or passed out—"

"Or both," Jaskier finishes.

Little Eye tries to reach over and punch his shoulder, but the momentum catches her and she flops against his side.

"Hey, Jule," she says. "You remember our—that time third year? Where you—"

"Oh, Melitele!" Jaskier laughs, trying to gently push her upright, but takes them both down backwards against the couch instead. "No, no—Geralt, have I told you this one? I don't think I've told you this one."

No.

Jaskier slurps up a spot of brandy that's spilled onto his hand. "Oh, Es, you have to tell it—you tell it best!"

"Mm," she agrees, patting his thigh. "It was—what was it?"

"Oh, well into winter break."

"Yeah, yeah. We begged off going home that year."

Jaskier puts a hand to his forehead. "I was simply too dedicated to my studies."

"Studying Zuzanna of Cidaris's cu—"

"We are in polite company!"

"—comely, virginal mouth, is what I was saying, of course. And, no, we aren't."

(Jaskier remembers that… mouth very well. It was a good winter; he hopes she's well. She graduated that spring, he thinks, and stopped writing.)

"Anyway, we were all shacked up in Zuzanna's dorm room, and Priscilla had said she'd snog anyone dumb enough to streak outside on a dare," Little Eye explains. She reaches over and pinches Jaskier's cheek, maybe a little meanly, but he can't really feel it through the haze of booze. "And this bastard was naked faster than I've ever seen anyone do anything."

"You know," Jaskier says, "I'm starting to worry you're still mad about the whole thing."

Little Eye shoves him lightly. "You already had Zuzanna! Why'd you need to snog—"

"First of all, you know that I am fundamentally incapable of refusing a dare," Jaskier says haughtily. "And secondly, it was Priscilla! Zuzanna was stripping too, it's not my fault you lot wear so many layers."

"I'm sorry," Jakob interrupts. "Do they not admit you to the university if you're not bent?"

The three alumni share a look.

Shani says, "I don't think so," at the same time Little Eye answers, "Not in the Arts department."

Jakob shrugs. "Fair enough."

"So Jaskier won, then?" Shani asks.

"He would've," Essi says, "if the absolute idiot hadn't run bare-arsed naked right past the Dean of Students' office window."

"He was a lovely man," Jaskier says, leaning his head back against the couch cushions. "If I'd been five years older at the—"

"Oh my gods," says Little Eye. "Don't finish that sentence."

Jakob tilts his head. "Do you like your partners older, then? I've never really understood the appeal if I'm being honest."

"I consider myself an equal opportunist in nearly all regards," Jaskier says brightly, sitting up a little again. "And there is a certain allure to—oh, cock it, where's my drink?"

Jaskier frowns down at his hand, which is now empty, and his knee, which is now bereft of the bottle it was next to. 

Both of these items are now atop the fireplace, which was certainly not his own doing. 

"Geralt," he whines. "Genuinely?"

Little Eye cackles and props her elbow up on his shoulder. "You've been cut off, dearest."

Jaskier pouts, then delicately displaces her arm so that he can stand. The room spins in a very suspicious manner, but that's no matter. He's a grown man, he can drink until his clothes fall off if he wants to.

"Honestly, Geralt," Jaskier tuts, picking his way past Shani and Jakob, "I can be responsible for my own—"

The brandy bottle is lofted above his head as soon as he reaches the fireplace.

"Oh, you bastard!" Jaskier tries to reach for the bottle, but it seems rather impossibly far away. "How are you—are you levitating? I'm tall! You can't be that tall."

The bottle floats a good four feet further away from him, back towards the kitchen.

"You're being very mean to me," says Jaskier. "I'm nice to you all the time. I read you things and you won't even let me have one teensy, teensy little other drink?"

Geralt tilts the bottle and pours a slight dribble into the glass, which he very graciously holds out for Jaskier to take.

"You know, I have other people I could talk to." Jaskier sniffs, tilting his nose up. He reaches out and strokes the edge of the chimera painting. "Like—like Katya. Katya is very kind to me."

"Wait," comes Shani's voice from behind him. "Who the fuck is Katya?"

"Oh," says Jaskier, turning his head. "I've just decided she's the chimera. It suits her, doesn't it? She's such a lovely girl."

The brandy bottle jerks through the air, liquor sloshing inside of it.

"Katya, do you think I deserve more brandy, which I made with my own sweat and tears?" Jaskier asks the painting innocently. "You do? And what do you think of Geralt's current behavior? You—well, I will not repeat that language, but I agree with you, ma'am!"

"... Is he okay?" Jakob asks.

Geralt puts the bottle down, emphatically suggests that Jaskier fuck himself, and then fills a pitcher with water in the sink. 

"He's pretty much like this sober, if I'm being honest," says Little Eye.

Jaskier pets the golden frame affectionately. He is, in a distant part of his brain, aware that he's making a bit of a scene. Much like his commitment to the time-honored tradition of honoring a dare, this does not perturb him.

Geralt pours a quarter shot of liquor and a rather large glass of water. He shoves both to the edge of the table.

"What do you think, Katya?" Jaskier asks his chimera. "Should we forgive Geralt? I mean, he has been rather lovely to us overall, and he's not allowed to get drunk which would make me very grumpy in his shoes, so I think—yes, you're right, you're so very wise."

Jaskier accepts the compromise, taking a pointedly long sip from the water.

Actually, water suddenly tastes like the most delicious and important thing he's ever had. It's possible all the drinking has been a mistake.

He will never admit this.

Jaskier drains the glass, refills it from the pitcher, and then rejoins the group on the furs by the fire. It's rather warm in his little cottage, especially under the glow of strong liquor. 

There's a lull in the conversation, possibly due to his little bout of theatrics. Jaskier lolls his head onto Essi's shoulder and says, "Anyway, I heard you snogged Priscilla that following week anyway, you trollop."

"Excuse me!" Little Eye huffs, flicking him on the temple. "Which one of us was caught in the stables with three different blacksmiths' children all in one month? Not me!"

Shani whistles. "Were you going for a public commendation?"

Jakob raises his hand. "Just to clarify—all three from the same blacksmith, or three separate—"

"I think there were twins," Jaskier says absently. "On two separate occasions. Oh, I mean, one set of twins, each twin on a different—"

"Unbelievable," says Shani.

And then the conversation is off again.

 

~*~

 

The fire dwindles low in the hearth; Jaskier watches it lazily, intending to get up shortly to put another log on it, but he's petting Essi's hair which feels quite nice, and he thinks she may be asleep.

Shani and Jakob are curled up together with a blanket thrown over them, breathing softly in the fading light. There's a fondness there, that Jaskier feels for them, and the sour ache of something like a hangover brewing in his stomach underneath.

He doesn't care for the feeling. He's quite positive it's not for either of them, specifically, but the privilege—of someone to hold.

Jaskier brushes Essi's hair away from her face; her eyes are closed with eyelids fluttering. Something crackles in the fire, but she doesn't stir at all. Even this is such a lovely thing. To feel the haze of drunkenness gently lifting, to be able to touch a friend.

"Geralt," Jaskier says softly. "Are you here?"

Yes, very quietly, as not to disturb.

"I'm glad for tonight, and that you stayed," Jaskier tells him. "And I'm suddenly afraid that it was horrible for you."

Why?

Jaskier lets the curtain of Little Eye's hair fall again. It obscures her cheeks, her shadowed lashes, the evidence of her dreaming. 

"Do you miss being alive?" he asks.

Geralt hesitates. Slowly, he says, Yes, and then, after another pause, No.

Jaskier quirks his lips sadly. "I'm afraid I don't understand, dear ghost."

No clarification is provided.

"Do you… miss it less?" Jaskier asks.

Yes.

"Do you mean that in a good way?"

Yes.

Jaskier wets his bottom lip. "Because it's easier to bear?"

Yes.

"Because—" Jaskier finds it difficult, suddenly, to speak. Like in the most terrible of his dreams. "Because… of me?"

Nothing happens for a long time. If Geralt slept, Jaskier would assume he had drifted off. It would be nice if he could.

Yes, says Geralt at last. 

Jaskier smiles, the pain tightening it around the edges. He sits up a little, which causes Essi to grumble and resettle.

"Could I trouble you for one more thing tonight, darling?" Jaskier carefully nods in the direction of his song notebook. "I'd like to write a little, while this feeling lasts."

He doesn't say which one. Geralt brings him the notebook, and he dips his quill into the ink. He wonders if Geralt reads the words—if he cares to. 

It'd be alright, if he did. They're for him.

 

~*~

 

The winter passes in a gentle, quaint sort of fashion. Jaskier brings home piles of books when the roads are clear, and doubly considers getting a cart pony. He becomes creative with his narrations and writes a handful of new songs which bounce around in the rafters of their little cottage and throws several more parties.

At one point, the whole lot of them are snowed in for a three day period, during which they invent a dreadful new card game that should never see the light of day come spring.

("Why did we never think of playing cards?" Jaskier asks Geralt. "I'll get you a Gwent deck if the snow ever melts.")

The snow does melt, and Jaskier discovers that Geralt is either an excellent card player or a filthy cheater. He finds it delightful either way.

Spring comes in little starts, between stubborn snowfalls. The plum tree begins to sprout leaves, and Priscilla arrives in Oxenfurt.

Jaskier discovers so upon entering their favorite tavern one afternoon a week or so before the new term starts; she's sitting at a large table, laughing and smacking Little Eye on the arm.

"Do my eyes deceive me?" Jaskier calls from across the room. "Has the famous and much-beloved Callonetta returned to grace us with her presence?"

"Julian!" Priscilla cries, hopping to her feet to be swept up in a hug. She kisses him on both cheeks. "Don't be so formal, using my stage name like that."

Jaskier returns the gesture and then releases her to cross his arms over his chest. "Oh, are we friends? Because I thought friends wrote friends letters from time to time."

"Oh, you little brat," Priscilla says, waving him off. "You need to stay in one place for more than a week to receive a letter, you know. What would I tell the postman, 'just keep trying whorehouses until you hear particularly masturbatory singing?'"

Jaskier grins effusely. "I am thrilled to hear that this will be my legacy. Vagabondry and whoring."

"Don't forget the masturbation," Little Eye adds.

"You haven't heard, though?" Shani asks, returning with Jakob and a round of beer. "Our resident tramp has a collar."

Jaskier turns to her, offended. "Did you go up in the attic? Because those things are not mine, and even if they were—"

"I meant metaphorically," Shani says with a dry sip from her tankard. "Like your songs aren't."

"Oh," says Jaskier, then narrows his eyes. "Wait a minute, I don't—"

"You mean that jig about the ghost?" Priscilla asks incredulously. She leans over and smacks Jaskier on the hand. "I've been meaning to scold you for that! Do you know how many courts I've had to play that stupid dance for?"

Jaskier's eyes widen again. "You have?"

"'Oh, Callonetta, play the ghost dance,'" Priscilla quotes in a horrendous falsetto. "'It's so fun and charming and it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of your miserable little life, but we want to dance!'"

"Oh dear," says Jaskier. "Geralt's going to kill me. This is fantastic."

Priscilla raises an eyebrow. "The song's not factual?"

"It is… loosely based on real events," Jaskier says noncommittally. He turns back to Shani and protests, "He's not my collar."

Priscilla leans all the way across the table to prod him in the sternum. "You have a muse. You have a ghost muse! That explains everything—of course that's the only reason you'd stay in one place."

"I—" Jaskier rubs at his chest. "Beg your pardon?"

"Oh, Essi and I had a bet," Priscilla says. "I thought you'd last half a term on your own."

Little Eye shrugs with one shoulder. "I gave you the full term."

"How gracious," Jaskier says drily.

"This really is the most Julian-esque thing possible, though," Priscilla tells him. "You've always had a flare for the dramatic."

"So have the two of you!" Jaskier protests, punctuating with both hands on the table. "We're bards."

(He is, privately, pleased. This… thing, with Geralt—it is his. They'll remember him for it.)

Shani gestures with her tankard. "Weren't you going to perform something new today? Looks like they're setting up."

Jaskier feels the tips of his ears going red. "Maybe I better stick to the jig. Give the people what they want."

"Ugh, please don't," says Priscilla. "I mean, it's brilliant, Julian, I've just heard it so much."

Jakob adds, "Besides, don't you wanna get your new material out there?"

"It's… not like the others," Jaskier hedges. He taps his fingers against the table. "And now I'm quite certain you'll all make fun of me."

The group shares a look.

"We… promise not to?" Shani offers.

Jaskier bites his bottom lip. "I think it needs—"

"Sorry to interrupt," says a strange man, dragging over a chair with an authority that does not suggest penance. "But I hear you're the one with a ghost problem."

Jaskier blinks, taking in the sudden stranger. He's got a close-shaven head and a prominent necklace over his armor—as well as two swords strapped to his back.

"I'm sorry, erm—" Jaskier says. "It's not really a 'problem,' exactly? And you are?"

"Where are my manners?" the man says, making a hiss-like tsk with his tongue. "Gaetan, highly accomplished Witcher, at your service—for a bounty, of course."

Jaskier feels himself tense, which he compensates for by leaning back in his chair. "Erm—"

"We hardly ever see Witchers in Oxenfurt," Shani observes. "Not too many monsters around, thankfully."

Gaetan smiles sharply. "I'm passing through on my way to a… different contract. But I heard the bard's song, and the rumors…"

"Rumors?" Jaskier asks warily.

"That your ghost is the same one a Griffin looked into decades ago," explains the Witcher. "It's a tricky curse, isn't it? But I can rid you of it."

Jaskier's pulse spikes through his throat. But it's—no, it's simply this man's job, to offer such a service. There's no reason Jaskier can't simply decline.

"Ah, I'm afraid there's a misunderstanding," he says, spreading his hands placatingly. "I'm not looking to break the curse. This ghost is entirely peaceful, you see—not a monster."

"Heard it broke a man's neck," says Gaetan, idly inspecting his nails.

Jaskier's voice goes flat. "Unsubstantiated. I have not been harmed, nor has anyone else in my tenure here. As the ghost is confined to my property—"

"That doesn't matter, you see—if it's harmed anyone. Monstrosity is in the nature of it, just like hunting them is in mine. I'm simply part of a food chain." Gaetan licks his lips. "What reason do you have for denying my meal? I'd charge a reasonable price—like your friend said, contracts are scarce up North. I'm looking to make a living."

Jaskier's lip curls, his knuckles turning white against the table. He opens his mouth to snap a response, but Priscilla places her hand over his.

"There really is no work for you here," she tells Gaetan sweetly. "I'm very sorry about that—everyone needs to make a living. But if you're worried about food and lodging, there are several taverns in the lower west quarter than have been known to put people up for a day or two in exchange for labor."

Gaetan raises an eyebrow, looking between the lot of them. He slaps his hands on his knees before standing and airily replies, "Thanks for the tip, sweetheart. Maybe someone in that part of town'll feel a little differently about your friendly monster, hm?"

Jaskier watches him leave. He can still feel Priscilla's hand on top of his own, itching like a second skin. Fuck, no one would tell that man where the cottage is—would they?

"I know the prejudice against Witchers is broadly underserved," says Jakob. "But I did really hate that one, specifically."

Little Eye leans into his field of vision worriedly. "Julian, are you—"

"I should go," Jaskier announces. "Um, check on—on Geralt."

"Should we go with you?" Shani offers. "I mean, maybe we should—"

"No, no, it's okay!" Jaskier says brightly, maybe on the edge of frenetic. "It's fine!"

He starts to leave coin on the table for his tab, then realizes he never even ordered anything. Fuck, he needs to go.

"Julian—" Little Eye tries again, but Jaskier is already hurrying out the door.

 

~*~

 

He stops at a locksmith's on the way and purchases the sturdiest-looking bar for the door he can find. He does need the woman's cart in order to bring it all back to the cottage; she keeps insisting that he should let her install it for him so he doesn't ruin the door, but he's suddenly fearful of anyone getting a look inside.

In the end, he convinces her to leave with the empty cart and her payment for the supplies. Geralt opens the door for him when he tries to to haul the dense wood inside.

"Thank you, Geralt." Jaskier rests the bar—which suddenly feels significantly lighter—against the wall. "One moment. No one's been here today, have they?"

No, says Geralt. What are you doing?

"Just a little added security," Jaskier says cheerfully. "Don't worry about it."

He gathers up the rest of the supplies—iron screws and fastenings, and a borrowed set of tools—and then latches the door behind him once he's inside.

What the fuck?

"It's fine!" Jaskier insists. "I just thought, you know—well, don't worry about it. I'll take care of the whole thing."

He picks up one of the iron fastenings, which appears to go… somewhere. How does a bar over the door work? It should be able to slide into place, maybe? The locksmith couldn't have written instructions?

No.

Jaskier puts it up to the door, rotating it around. Maybe the bar goes parallel to this bit?

No.

Jaskier ignores the ruckus behind him. He needs to—he doesn't know. He needs to be able to do something. The thought of that man coming here—of anyone—

He can't just do nothing. He won't just be a burden again, not to Geralt.

Jaskier flips the bracket around—maybe like this? Yes, this looks better. He keeps the bracket pressed to the wall so he doesn't forget the orientation, bending down to find a screw and the screwdriver.

Geralt snatches the screwdriver away from him before he can grab it, which startles him into dropping the fastening to the ground onto his foot.

"Bollocks, Geralt!" Jaskier hops off the injured foot, wincing, and lunges for the screwdriver. "Give it! I can do it myself just let me—"

He gets a hand around the screwdriver triumphantly, and then his entire body goes cold and it's like—

(His father telling him he'd be a disappointment, a fist around his heart like a rotten sponge, the look on Virginia's face when he wrote that sonnet begging her to stay)

And then instead it's—

(A dying woman with asymmetrical hair, an old keep razed to the ground, blood, blood, a woman's hair that is like blood, this empty cottage filled with Jaskier's blood, he's so fucking lonely that the thought of being anything else is as horrible as the blood)

And Jaskier can feel him. The shape of a knuckle, the suggestion of a fist. He feels the loneliness and the anger and the grief, and beneath all that a good, good heart—the best one, the best one he's known, better than his own— you were good, you were so good, can you hear me?

When it's over, Jaskier is on the floor with tears streaming into his beard. He gasps for air so he can wheeze, "Geralt."

There's no answer. The screwdriver is on the ground with Jaskier—he touches it, but there's no one there.

"Geralt," he says again. His chest feels tight, like he could die. He's old enough for his heart to kill him. "Fuck, where are you?"

It's horrible, how long nothing happens for. Then, three screws begin to wobble and roll into a little line.

Jaskier's breathing deepens. He braces a hand against the ground and sits up a little. "Are you…?"

Yes.

He scrubs at his face, stemming the tears, and asks, "Is all that… it's how you feel? That's—that's what it's like?"

Yes, then, no.

"Was that—" Jaskier laughs helplessly. "Oh, gods, please tell me that was worse. Please tell me it's not—"

Yes.

"That was worse?"

Yes.

Jaskier closes his eyes. "Fuck. Thank Melitele. Oh, fuck. Could you—could you feel me?"

Yes.

"Was it…" Jaskier swallows, watching the screws and the tremor in his own hands. "Was it bad? Did it hurt?"

No, and then, softly, yes.

And it must, mustn't it? It must be horrible and beautiful like watching blood drip onto snow. Jaskier has never seen blood drip onto snow, but he has. 

He wonders what his life would look like—what would get wrenched out and crack his ribs on the way, and become the story that wrapped around someone else's throat. He wants to ask Geralt, but he can't.

(Jaskier imagines it. Did you see this? Yes. Did you see that? No. Did you find anything that explains why no one's ever wanted my love the way I wanted to give it? Can you look again?)

"I'm sorry," he whispers.

No.

Jaskier smiles faintly. "Did you know this could happen?"

No.

"Well, have you ever touched anyone before?" Jaskier asks.

Yes.

"Besides the one you killed, darling."

… No.

Jaskier leans his head back against the door. He drums his fingers against his thigh in a tired rhythm. No one would believe this in a song.

He needs to bar the door. He thinks about the pain—all the blood, all the ache. Maybe it's—

It could be kinder. To let Geralt rest. Maybe there's nothing but suffering for him here, in this place, watching Jaskier get to live.

But—no. They play cards, don't they? And Jaskier reads and Geralt cooks and they belong to each other. They have to.

Jaskier can't belong to this place alone.

He's not strong or selfless enough to manage it, to say the thing he should—what he has are a pair of greedy hands that will wrap around his own throat before he can manage it, and play the lute. The rest, he'll give to Geralt—to make up for it.

(Did you find out where the love goes, when they don't want it? I think I swallow it. Can you look again?)

"I need to—" Jaskier clears his throat. "I need to do this, please. And then I'm going to boil myself alive in the bath."

… Okay.

Geralt picks up one of the fastenings and holds it up against the wall, demonstrating how it should go. 

Oh, Jaskier had it very wrong. He closes his eyes with a tired breath. Normally he wouldn't care so much about a thing like that—but right now his heart is raw and tender, and it makes him feel so utterly useless that he could cry again.

Geralt puts the bracket back down and drops a clean handkerchief into Jaskier's lap. He takes it, sniffling in an unbecoming manner, and hides his face for three shaking moments.

"I'm sorry," he mutters, dabbing at his eyes a final time. "I've been bloody useless to you."

No, rather sharply. No.

Jaskier smiles thinly. "You're humoring me, darling."

Geralt plucks Jaskier's lute from its case by the door, where he had left it forgotten, and lays it in Jaskier's lap. He then takes up the screwdriver and one of the fastenings and gestures with them pointedly.

"Geralt," says Jaskier.

Yes.

Jaskier clears his throat, looking down at his lute. He's done good, hasn't he? It's been worth something, even if it wasn't what he was supposed to want.

He smiles, shifting his fingers through a few chord positions to warm up. "Any requests?"

I don't care.

"Of course you don't." Jaskier scoots out of the way, giving Geralt more room to work on the door. "You do know that means I'll subject you to 'Fishmonger's Daughter' until I get tired of it."

Geralt just begins screwing the metal into the wall.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier plays for Geralt until the bar on the door is finished and swung neatly in place, at which point he does drag himself upstairs to draw a bath. 

His body is sore in the all-over aching sort of way, which he assumes is another side-effect of touching Geralt. It's definitely a fancy bath soak kind of day; he digs through his collection while the water heats up, and finds that it's been rearranged since the last time he used them.

It takes him a moment to figure out why, before it comes to him—all the strongest-smelling blends are stuffed with a very characteristic grumpiness in the back of the drawer, and a few of his favorites are even missing entirely.

Jaskier rolls his eyes fondly and plucks a gentle blend of lavender and chamomile from the very front. It's the appropriate choice for his frayed nerves, in any case.

The bath is quickly steaming, and the room fills with the soothing scent of herbs. He thinks idly, as he lowers into the water, that he's rather making a stew of himself.

He snorts, almost making the joke out loud, before he realizes that Geralt is presumably downstairs.

Jaskier's eyes slip shut. The heat seeps down into his bones, coaxing the ache out of him. He can still feel what it was like, on the edges of his awareness, if he concentrates—like a faded dream, the kind that leaves you disoriented upon awakening.

It itches like a wound scabbing over. A pain that isn't pain anymore. It perhaps says something about his nature that he very nearly wants it back.

Hmm, or perhaps it was more like a toothache, he thinks—toying with the metaphor. The idea that if he'd only pressed a little harder, borne it a little longer, he would have done so with more grace. He wants to be capable of it.

The knock on the door nearly gives him a heart attack, before he remembers.

"Geralt?" he asks. "You can come in."

The door opens, revealing nothing besides the three little horse carvings they normally keep on the mantel. 

"Hm," Jaskier observes, watching Geralt place the figurines on the chest where his soaks are stored. "Can you not just walk through the walls? I've never thought about it."

Yes.

"Ah, but then you couldn't bring those with you, is that it?"

Yes.

"Fascinating." Jaskier sinks a little lower in the tub. "Can you close the door again, though, dear? I want the room to steam up. Unless it'll bother you."

Geralt closes the door.

"Thank you." Jaskier shuts his eyes again. He marvels at how settled he feels now, shut away in this little room together. 

Geralt seems content as well, letting the silence settle over them. Maybe he just wanted the company, too.

Jaskier dozes for a bit, in and out of a twisting half-dream. It forms itself in abstract shapes and colors, things that look like teeth and blood but do not seem to threaten him. And a rose, he thinks, and an apple. Are they more memories? 

"Geralt," he murmurs, rousing himself enough to crack an eye open. He thinks the water should have cooled by now, but it hasn't. "Do you think we could… learn to control it?"

I don't know.

"Ooh, have I finally stumped my all-knowing Witcher?" Jaskier muses, raising a teasing eyebrow. 

Fuck you.

"Yes, yes, you grouch." Jaskier lifts his hand from the water and flicks droplets in Geralt's approximate direction. He capitalizes on the momentum to wash his beard, scratching a bit of soap through the coarse hair. 

The water trickles back down his throat; he tilts his chin up to rest his head against the tub and blinks slowly at the ceiling. 

It's so still. The faucet drips once, twice.

"I would… like to," Jaskier says softly, to the broad wooden beams that shelter them. "If we could."

Geralt hesitates. Why?

Jaskier nearly laughs. He must not have seen it, then—that warmest secret of his heart.

"My dearest Witcher," he says instead, because it is a truth without being the worst one, "don't you know us poets are fools for pain? I think we have to be."

No.

"'No,' what?" Jaskier asks. "'No,' you won't do it?"

No.

"Then, what?" Jaskier tilts his head down. "We don't have to be fools?"

Yes.

"Ah, yes, well." Jaskier smiles. His blood was on the floor, so he knows. "I think you like me to be a fool. I think you like me very much."

Geralt says nothing. It's a comforting kind of silence. Jaskier isn't sure how he knows that; he could be inventing it all. 

"You'll do it then?" Jaskier asks gently. "You'll… try, with me?"

… Yes.

Jaskier wets his bottom lip. He lifts his hand from the water, before he loses the nerve, and rests it palm-side up on the edge of the tub.

Geralt responds noncommittally.

"Are you not sure?" Jaskier asks. "Or you're asking if I am?"

If you are.

"I am," Jaskier reassures him, beckoning with a flutter of his hand. "As long as you are."

Geralt taps on the side of the tub in warning, and then a chilling spark shoots up the blood-line of Jaskier's wrist. He flinches on instinct, feeling that rush of sadness course through him, and Geralt jerks away.

"No, it's alright," Jaskier coaxes, spreading his palm again. His eyes are shining again, he thinks. "You can let go of it, Geralt. I can carry it."

He closes his eyes, focusing on the warmth of the water over his chest. The smell of lavender, like a gentle promise.

Geralt touches him again, a gentle shiver along the side of his index finger. He curls his hand, can almost feel Geralt's own in his—like something should be there, the way the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. 

And, oh, it hurts. He tries to think about it, to make sense of things—prodding at the sole of his foot to find where a sliver of wood has gone in. He can only describe it in relation; the curse of a poet. He can say what it is or it can be true. 

But they are true—the things he feels. He can bear them. He doesn't know if they're his or Geralt's—neither the hurt nor the thought that it is survivable. He shudders; something wipes the tears from his eyes. 

There is no blood. He doesn't think about his father. And there's a kind of peace—

(He grew up on the coast. His mother told him that if he got caught up in the current, he needed to stop fighting and look up at the sky and let it carry him until she could find him. It happened once, when he was still small. When the waves finally brought him back to the sand, she had just realized he'd been gone)

I'd find you, he thinks. Can you hear me? I'd find you.

The room fades back into focus. Jaskier feels weary, like it's been hours, but the bath is still a pleasant temperature.

"Well, that wasn't as bad." Jaskier splashes the warm water onto his face, rubbing gently at his eyes. "Geralt?"

The little horse figurine on the left wobbles. Yes, but barely.

Jaskier frowns, thinking about how long it took Geralt to come back to him the first time. "Is it difficult for you? Physically, I mean?"

Yes, again.

Jaskier stretches, glad he's still soaking in the tub, and admits, "Me, too. Suppose we should be careful."

Yes.

"Could you…" Jaskier wets his bottom lip. "Could you hear me? While we were…"

No.

"Ah, well, that's a shame," Jaskier says softly. But maybe it's for the best; perhaps it's the kind of thing not readily understood. "Did you try talking to me?"

Yes.

"I couldn't hear you, either."

There's no response to that.

Jaskier slinks down into the water up to his chin, eyes fluttering shut. Melitele, he never wants to leave this bath and face the world again.

"What shall we do tonight?" he muses wryly, curling his toes. "Run the bridge a few times? Finish off that last bottle of brandy? We could clean out the attic—you're up for a little heavy lifting, right?"

Geralt turns on the cold tap full blast for just long enough to make Jaskier shriek like a schoolgirl.

"Fine, fine!" He draws up his knees, pouting as fiercely as he can manage. "You're insufferable. Horrible, bratty ghost. An absolute terror."

Geralt drops a towel on his head.

Jaskier towels off his hair, reaches over to add more hot water to the bath, and smugly informs him, "Wouldn't have you any other way."

 

~*~

 

In the end, there's no sight of the other Witcher again—at least, long enough passes that Jaskier is confident that there won't be. Jakob says that he reached out to some old friends, who had heard rumors of a Cat Witcher working for political hire in the area. 

Jaskier, who is currently busy debating the benefits of starting a small vegetable garden this late in the season, has more important things to worry about—as long as the Witcher stays out of his way.

He doesn't mention it to Geralt. He's already losing the vegetable argument; he's not forking over any more ammunition.

"I don't care how nutritious they are," Jaskier tells Geralt, who is tapping very insistently on a deeply boring agricultural guidebook. "Beets are not sexy and we're not planting them!"

Fuck you.

"Katya agrees with me," Jaskier says, turning to the chimera painting with a dramatic tilt of his chin. "What's that, Katya? You think that because Geralt isn't even eating the food, he should stop being a stubborn brat and give me my tomato seeds back? I—well, I wouldn't use that word, but I'll tell him."

Geralt flips the book closed in a spectacular huff, and does not return Jaskier's future tomato children.

"Oh, fine." Jaskier crosses his arms. "It's that important to you, is it?"

Yes. Fuck you.

Jaskier rolls his eyes, wandering back into the other room in favor of his couch. He flops onto it and tells the ceiling, "I'll get some beet starters when I go to the market this afternoon, you ox. But I'm planting my tomatoes too—my family planted tomatoes, they remind me of childhood. You know, as I say that out loud it's occurring to me—I hated my childhood. Why do I want tomatoes?"

Geralt, having retrieved the sachet of tomato seeds from wherever they'd been hidden, drops them on Jaskier's face. 

"You are so very kind, thank you, my dear." Jaskier leans over and puts the bag on the ground. 

He closes his eyes briefly, as a delicate breeze flutters through the window. It's warm enough to welcome the fresh air into the cabin these days, which is a long-awaited blessing. The morning will pass slowly, he thinks, before it's time for the market.

"Geralt," he says lightly, lolling his head to the side to peer at the answer. "We've spent so long trying to mitigate the sadness, haven't we? What if we tried to think of happiness, first?"

I don't know.

"Well, I suppose the only way to find out is to try," says Jaskier. "There's enough time before—"

I don't know.

Jaskier blinks. "I don't understand. Is it that you don't want to try it?"

No. 

"Then what?" Jaskier asks. "You're… you're not sure how to—"

He stops. No, he can't finish that sentence. He couldn't bear it.

Yes.

"Oh." Jaskier purses his lips together and closes his eyes, brightening his voice as much as he can manage. "Well, that's alright, I can—I can teach you. Just—think of times when the world felt a little lighter, hm? When it was—when it wasn't so hard. When you wanted to laugh. Have you had times like that?"

One of the squirrels chitters from up in the plum tree. Geralt says, Yes.

"Alright. We can—" Jaskier clears his throat. "We can try, when you're ready, okay?"

He closes his eyes again and holds out his hand, and thinks about—

(The times his mother sang him to sleep, the beauty of golden wheat shimmering at sunrise, coming home to a warm stew on the hearth, good sex, mediocre sex, Shani's laugh when Essi tells a good story, clean dishes and a book by the fire, the taste of plum brandy, getting his arse beaten at cards, waking up with a blanket around his shoulders)

And it becomes—

(Jaskier's voice lilting over a poem, wrestling with two battle-scarred men who are laughing, who are children again, who wear his medallion, Jaskier talking to a painting with his arms arcing through the air, Jaskier asleep by the fire, Jaskier drunk and rambling about sex, Jaskier biting his lower lip while he frantically grades an entire stack of papers in one night, Jaskier Jaskier Jaskier—)

It ends. Jaskier touches at his cheek, which is lightly dampened.

"Oh," he says softly. "Geralt."

A neighbor is growing flowers; the perfumed scent of them carries on the breeze, tickling his nose. It's not the proper season for ghosts anymore. Their cottage belongs to something else.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier is laying in bed, tangled up in his favorite blanket and clutching a pillow to his chest as he cushions his head. It's a cooler night and the windows are open anyway, turning the sheets sleek and refreshing and a little like something foreign.

Spring is still at the door, waiting for the story to change. He's ready to let it.

"Geralt," Jaskier whispers in the dark. "Are you there?"

Yes, says Geralt, tapping it into the dresser, relying on the sound alone to communicate the difference in responses.

Jaskier smiles tentatively; he wonders if Geralt can see. "Do you want to hear a secret?"

Yes.

"Sometimes," Jaskier says slowly, wetting his bottom lip, "when we're here like this, I… I can almost imagine that you're holding me. Or that… I could hold you. And I—well. Gods, it makes me so unbearably lonely, to know you're right there and I can't. But then it's not unbearable at all, because I do have you, don't I?"

There is silence. Enough of it to drown him in that old, terrible way, like the maw in the center of him is going to reopen as soon as the world remembers he's lacking.

"I'm sorry," he says quickly. "I shouldn't have. If you don't feel—"

No.

"I—" Jaskier's stomach wrenches again. "To what—"

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

"Geralt," Jaskier begs. "I don't understand."

Yes, Geralt says. Yes.

It becomes increasingly urgent in a way that hardly anything from Geralt is; like he's scrabbling for something against the curse between them.

"Do you—do you need another word?" Jaskier asks, finally sitting up in bed. It makes his head woozy, the sudden change against the pressure of his racing heart. "Is there something you're—"

Yes.

Geralt abandons the trinkets on the dresser and throws open the bedroom door. 

Jaskier still cannot see; he climbs out of bed carefully, shuffling along the floor to avoid tripping over anything. He's soon guided by the sound of rustling in the kitchen as he picks his way down the stairs.

A fire bursts to life in the hearth when he rounds the corner.

"Melitele's tits!" Jaskier yelps, a hand to his chest. "Have you always been able to do that? Geralt, please slow down—"

Geralt dumps a third of a bag of flour onto the floor.

"Have you gone mad?" 

Geralt doesn't answer. He takes the fire poker and begins to trace a shape into the mess, which promptly summons a cloud of sulphurous fire.

"Geralt—"

The metal rod clatters to the floor in frustration.

Geralt tries the broom next, instead sweeping the flour into the shape he seems to need. Jaskier edges away carefully, but no fire catches.

It's an M.

"Okay," Jaskier says softly. Hands shaking, he lowers himself into the reading chair. "Okay, I see it."

I

N

E

Jaskier tries to exhale; he finds himself incapable. He is capable of the hand against his mouth, the shaky, insatiable thing bleeding all over his lungs. 

"I am," he agrees breathlessly. (And, oh, it hurts.) It hurts like laughter. "I'm yours, my darling."

But Geralt says, No.

Jaskier frowns, about to ask—

Geralt gestures with the broom, asking him to wait. And he does, while Geralt spells—

H

A

P

P

Y

?

"Oh—oh, Geralt." Jaskier does almost laugh, his voice rasping and his eyes shining in the firelight, and he can feel his shoulders shaking very much like they will come apart. "Is that what you've been worried about? I'm the happiest I've ever been, my love—here with you. You're not forcing me here. I'd—I'd actually quite worried the opposite."

What?

"That I've trapped you," Jaskier clarifies, swallowing thickly. "That the first time anyone's ever kept me it's because they were forced to stay—"

No.

"—and that you'd be rid of me if you could be anywhere else—"

No.

"—but you—are you happy, my ghost? Would you rather I let you go?"

No. Geralt pulls something from a shelf—another wood carving, which he places next to the others on the mantel. Mine.

Jaskier touches at his face, wiping at the steady welling of tears. He's always been a bit of a crier; it's worsened with age, but he finds he doesn't mind.

"I've been selfish," he admits wetly, watching the fire flicker. "There was—a man. A Witcher, like you, except his medallion was that of a cat—"

No.

"Well, that's reassuring, because I turned him away." Jaskier sniffs ruefully. "He said he could get rid of you. And I should've told you, because maybe you wanted to go—but I couldn't, Geralt. I couldn't think of it."

Geralt says nothing.

"I'm sorry," Jaskier whispers. "I'm sorry I took the choice away from you. It's useless, giving it back now. I swear I won't—if you want me to find a way for you to go—"

Mine, Geralt tells him. Mine.

Jaskier lifts his head. He's overheating, by the fire, sweat pooling on his body, and a cloud of flour is still resettling on the floor from being kicked about by Geralt's broom. It tickles his nose and throat, which he can't seem to clear.

"As long as you want me to be," he promises. "As long as I'm given—and long after."

Geralt begins to sweep up the mess, patient and steady. It's far time to be asleep, but Jaskier won't leave him down here alone. He retrieves the dustpan from the kitchen and kneels down by the fire.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier stops by the tavern after work for the first time in over a week and walks in on the delightful, if not somewhat flashback-inducing, scene of Priscilla snogging Essi silly at their table like they're a pair of insatiable undergraduates.

"I'm sorry," he says loudly, sitting down with a tankard of ale. "Did I interrupt a dare in progress or is this just a thing now?"

Little Eye offers him a very rude gesture in response.

"Hey, Jaskier," says Jakob. "Good to see you."

Priscilla disentangles from Little Eye's lap and says solemnly, "We thought you died."

"She's just consoling me in my grief," Little Eye agrees.

"I'm touched," Jaskier says drily.

Little Eye asks, "So where the fuck've you been?"

"In the garden, mostly, digging holes for beets I didn't want." Jaskier takes a sip of his ale. "Spending time with Geralt."

Shani arrives at the table, kissing Jakob on the cheek. "Hey, Jaskier. Are you gonna play tonight?"

"Not to be judgemental," says Priscilla, in that tone of voice that indicates she is absolutely being judgemental. "But don't you spend a lot of time with Geralt?"

"What are you implying?" Jaskier asks warily.

"That you're getting ghost cock," Essi informs him cheerfully. "Which, I really have to emphasize, is incredibly characteristic of you."

Jaskier turns back to Shani. "I think so, but not the new one yet."

"Seriously? It's not even new anymore," Shani complains. "It's just unplayed."

"I'm still tweaking it," Jaskier tells her defensively. "It's not—"

"Like Geralt is tweaking you?" Essi helpfully suggests.

Jaskier muses, "We actually haven't discussed the potential physical aspect of our relationship yet—do you think I should ask him? I mean, I suppose if I got a phallic—"

"You know, nevermind." Little Eye waves him off. "However that works for you is information I don't need or—more importantly—want."

Jakob offers, "I'm actually kind of interested in the mechanics of it?"

Shani raises an eyebrow at him.

"Same here," says Priscilla.

Jaskier grins. "Maybe I'll write a song about it."

"Play the song you already have!" Shani smacks him on the hand, exasperated.

Jaskier draws his hand away, shaking it out exaggeratedly. He protests, "It's not the right venue for it! Or, the song isn't—I don't know."

Priscilla leans forward, threading her fingers together. "Do you wanna workshop it?"

"Maybe," Jaskier hedges. "I'm not sure if…"

"Well what genre is it?" Little Eye asks. "Another jig?"

They all stare at him expectantly. Jaskier says, "A dirge."

It's a thorough mood-killer.

Priscilla says, "Oh," and then, "Well, we could—"

"No, it's alright," Jaskier reassures her, tight-lipped and smiling. "I do think I need to finish it myself. But the longer I sit with it, the more incomplete it feels."

"I understand," she answers sympathetically; he has no way of knowing if she could. 

Little Eye jokes, "Well, there's always our lovely 'Daughter' for tonight. Nothing gets the whole place drinking like a song about cock."

Jaskier huffs out a laugh. "They might throw us out if we play that again."

"Even better," she tells him. "A very classic experience for our company."

"You make a valid point," Jaskier says. "It's been a while since I've been a nuisance in public."

"I hope you'll spare a few minutes of your time before you do," says a strange, incredibly beautiful woman. She's draped in a fine dress of green silks, with tight curls and a lovely smattering of freckles on her face. "You are the bard, Jaskier, aren't you?"

"Erm," Jaskier answers eloquently. "Yes?"

The woman extends her hand. "My name is Triss Merigold. I know how to help your ghost."

Jaskier takes her hand warily, glancing up at her. The beauty, expensive clothing, and apparent knowledge of the arcane all suggest sorceress, but she's clearly not a resident of Oxenfurt's political court.

"I'm sorry," he tells her, "you're welcome to have a seat, but we've been through this misunderstanding before. My ghost isn't dangerous."

"I'm well aware of that," Triss answers, but she does pull over a chair. "His name is Geralt of Rivia. I was his friend."

Jaskier reaches for his ale, glancing at the others nervously; they seem to be watching him, unwilling to interfere.

"Well, I like you better than the last run-in we had already," he jokes. "Might you elaborate on the 'help' you can offer? Is there a way to lift the curse? I mean, could he—?"

Triss purses her lips. "What I can offer are… answers. I'm not sure they'll be the ones you want, if your faces are anything to go by. But wouldn't it be better for me to give them to Geralt directly? It's his curse, after all."

Jaskier nods, trying to quell his racing heart. He promised, even if Geralt didn't ask him to—no more hidden choices.

"It would be, yes." He sets his tankard down. "But I hope you'll understand that we've encountered people who would wish Geralt harm—so, I'd much prefer to discuss with him before I invite you to our—to my home."

Triss raises an eyebrow. "I'm sure you're well aware that a sorceress like me wouldn't need an invitation to gain entry to your home, if I wanted it."

Jaskier bares his teeth in a pleasant smile. "Perhaps not. But if your intention is to help me, you'll entertain the illusion."

"My intention is to help Geralt," she answers simply. "But I've booked a room at this tavern. You can ask after me here when you've spoken with him."

"Thank you," he tells her. "I'd hate to delay you here. I'll go to him now."

"Be seeing you," she replies with a subtle smile.

Jaskier leaves coin for his drink and waves off the concern on his friends' faces when he gets up to go. He'd much prefer this to be handled as soon as possible.

He hurries home across the bridge and finds Geralt doing the dishes. 

"Geralt," Jaskier says, skipping the preamble. "I just met a woman named Triss Merigold. Do you know her?"

Geralt drops the sponge in the sink. Yes.

"She claims to be a friend."

… Yes.

Jaskier breathes out a sigh of relief. "She says she has information for us, which she'd prefer to share with you directly. Shall I bring her here?"

Yes.

"Alright then." Jaskier lays a hand on the doorknob. "I'll go now, if that's alright "

Geralt is non-committal.

"Do you need time to prepare?" Jaskier asks.

No.

"Is there something else you need to tell me, then?"

No.

"Then I'm not following, dear."

Geralt tosses the wet sponge across the room, picks it up and carries it back, then throws it again.

"I don't mind the walk," Jaskier tells him. "Keeps me young, doesn't it? Besides, the weather's lovely."

Okay.

Jaskier smiles, his chest tightening in a way that has nothing to do with physical exertion. "I'll be back soon, love."

He locks the door behind him and treks back to the main island. Triss is waiting for him in a room upstairs, as promised.

"That was fast," she remarks, taking in his no doubt slightly disheveled appearance. "Did he agree to meet with me?"

"Yes, he did." Jaskier stands up a little straighter. "I'll show you the way when you're ready."

Triss smooths out her dress. "I can portal us there with magic, if you prefer."

"I'd like a private conversation first, if it pleases you," Jaskier tells her. "I suspect I'm mightily out of the loop. It's a pleasant walk, or we can talk here."

"I like Oxenfurt," Triss says. "Walking is fine."

So agreed, Jaskier leads her outside and back towards the eastern bridge.

"What loop are you hoping to be brought into, exactly?" Triss asks him once they're on the main path.

"Well, how you know Geralt, for starters." Jaskier quirks his lips. "It's not exactly convenient to get the details from him."

Triss raises an eyebrow at him. "And you trust me to tell the truth?"

"I can confirm your story with him relatively easily," Jaskier explains. "We've developed a shorthand."

"Interesting," she says. He turns to face her, briefly. Her demeanor is kind, soft but not weak. She's beautiful to the point of distraction. "Well, I met Geralt a few years before his… current circumstances."

Jaskier gestures for her to continue.

"There were nasty rumors of a vukodlak recently born in Temeria," Triss explains. "I disobeyed my Order's instructions and went to help King Foltest in secret. Geralt wasn't welcome either, but he stayed to help me."

Jaskier nods. "I remember hearing about the vukodlak. They said it could've gone unchecked for a long time."

"Except it wasn't a vukodlak," says Triss. "It was a striga."

Jaskier turns to her with alarm. "Those are—"

"Real." Triss smiles sadly. "And Geralt helped me cure her. She's a little girl with a future again, thanks to him."

Jaskier looks away, breathing through the sudden tightness in his throat. That's his Witcher, at the core. The person he sees when they touch.

"It's what I said to him after, that I…" Triss hesitates. "That I feel partly responsible for."

Jaskier glances over curiously, but says nothing.

"I told Geralt that his life could be more than just monsters and money. That I felt something… waiting, for him." Triss tucks a stray curl behind her ear. "And I've always wondered if that's what incited him to look for Stregobor."

"I don't understand." Jaskier side-steps a woman pulling a cart towards the market. "Who's Stregobor?"

Triss asks, "You're aware of who Geralt was in life, right?"

"Yes, I am."

"Then you know that they called him the Butcher of Blaviken."

"Yes," Jaskier agrees. "They say he slaughtered eight people in cold blood. I was a child at the time."

Triss observes, "You speak like you don't believe the rumors."

"So do you," counters Jaskier.

They turn down a side street to avoid a crowd of people, likely also market-bound. Triss lifts her skirts away from the dirt.

"I had to work out what happened for myself," she tells him. "Have you heard of the Curse of the Black Sun?"

"Before my time, I think." Jaskier watches her face. "I hear your lot locked up a lot of little girls."

"Stregobor locked up a lot of little girls," Triss hisses. "He claimed they were abominations—that they were prophesied to bring upon the end of the world."

"Was he correct?"

Triss spreads her hands. "Did the world end?"

"But he did kill them all," says Jaskier. "I assume that would have prevented the world-ending, were it to have existed."

"He was the only one who had access to the bodies," Triss says. "So we'll never know."

They clear the densest part of the city and rejoin the main road to the bridge. Jaskier waves to a neighbor, who smiles warmly back.

"What's this got to do with Blaviken?" he asks.

"Among Geralt's dead was Princess Renfri of Creyden—a girl born under the Black Sun," says Triss. She fidgets with her hair again. "She was a famous and ruthless bandit, and she was almost certainly there to kill Stregobor for what he did to her."

"Pity she failed," Jaskier says. "So, what—Geralt gets caught in the middle of this somehow?"

Triss nods grimly. "When I found out from one of Geralt's Witcher brothers that he was presumed dead, I went looking for him—my search took me to Blaviken, where I met a girl who witnessed the attack."

"And?" Jaskier asks.

"She said that Renfri held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill the entire town," Triss says, "if Stregobor did not reveal himself, or, barring that, Geralt did not kill Stregobor for her. And that Geralt tried in earnest to avoid Renfri's death, but was left with no choice."

The girl with crooked hair. 

"Did she have a brooch?" Jaskier asks, gesturing at his own chest. "Golden, inlaid with emeralds? Rather looks like it could stab you?"

Triss blinks rapidly and asks, "Geralt gave it to the striga. How do you know that?"

They've reached the bridge. Jaskier looks out over the strait, at the gently frothing current, and says softly, "I've watched her die."

The wood creaks under their feet.

"I think Geralt went looking for Stregobor to seek justice for Renfri and the other girls," Triss continues slowly. "And that he found him here, in Oxenfurt, and confronted him."

"And wound up cursed?" Jaskier asks bitterly.

Triss presses her mouth into a thin line.

"How does one kill a sorcerer?" Jaskier digs his nails into the wooden railing. "Hypothetically speaking."

"You'd have to ask Geralt," Triss tells him. "He took Stregobor down with him. That's been the problem, actually. These curses are incredibly intricate and specific, and the man who made it is dead."

Jaskier breathes out slowly, pausing when they reach the other side of the bridge. "But you've figured it out?"

"As best as I can," she answers, then pauses. They turn down the path to the cottage. "You… seem very fond of him."

"He's the best man I know," Jaskier answers simply. He nudges a rock into the grass with his foot. "What you've told me only deepens my certainty."

"That song you wrote is pretty embarrassing," Triss observes.

Jaskier laughs. "It was much easier to compose. People would prefer a pleasant story to a true one."

"Is that your genuine opinion?" she asks.

Jaskier turns to look at her again, finding her expression skeptical but open. "I'd like to be wrong."

"I think it would be kindest of me," Triss says, continuing down the path, "to warn you that you won't be happy with what I'm going to tell him."

Jaskier follows her, glancing up at the trees now. Flowers are blooming for them in earnest, as if to gentle the grief. As if to promise, Not now.

"I'll bear whatever decision he makes," Jaskier says. "I owe him that much. I'm this one here, with the horrible garden."

Triss stops outside his door, taking in the little vegetable plot. "Are you trying to kill them?"

"Killing a plant on purpose attributes a level of skill to me that I don't possess," Jaskier informs her, forcing a level of cheer. "I assure you that nothing that happened here was with any intention at all."

"Charming," she remarks, and then the door opens to admit them both.

Jaskier latches the door behind them and stoops down to unlace his boots. "Please, make yourself at home. I think I've half a pie left. Geralt, do we have pie left? I might be imagining that."

Yes.

"Excellent! Do you want pie?"

"That's alright, thank you," Triss says wryly. "Hello, Geralt. It's been a long time."

Yes.

"He agrees with you," Jaskier translates. "You see those wood carvings on the mantel? The leftmost indicates 'yes,' 'okay,' et cetera, the second indicates answers in the negative. The third is specifically for telling me to fuck myself, and the fourth is—not relevant."

"I see." Triss moves to sit at the table, in view of the mantel. "It's clever."

"Thank you." Jaskier wanders into the kitchen first, preparing himself with a slice of pie to busy his hands. "If you two would prefer to catch up in private, I can—"

No.

"Well, alright." Jaskier looks to Triss. "Is that agreeable?"

"It's fine with me," she says. "I'm sure Geralt would rather I got to the point, anyway."

Yes.

Jaskier takes his seat at the table, spinning the fork in his hands.

"I guess I'll just say, first," Triss begins, eyes fixed on the mantel, "that I'm sorry I've been gone so long. I thought about visiting, but I…"

No.

"No?" she asks.

"No need to apologise," Jaskier supplies.

Yes.

"Well, thank you." Triss traces circles into the table with the pads of her fingers. "But I did manage to work out the curse. And I'm sure that I could break it. But, Geralt… I'm sorry. It's irreversible."

Geralt is silent.

Jaskier feels the familiar ache in his chest. He asks, already resigned to the answer, "And by that, you mean?"

"I can't bring Geralt back to life," Triss tells him. There's a gentleness to it, like it's been rehearsed. "I can only free his spirit to the next realm."

"So he'd be gone," Jaskier clarifies. He feels his voice breaking; he lets it. "But it—it'd be peaceful, wouldn't it? That's what they always say."

"I can't say what waits." Triss shakes her head minutely. "I can say that it isn't this."

"Geralt," says Jaskier.

No, Geralt tells him. Mine.

"I'd find you there, one day," Jaskier promises. "You could wait for me."

No.

Triss smiles. "I think the answer's been made clear."

Jaskier swallows thickly, bracing himself for protest. "Could you replicate the curse? Could you do it again?"

What?

"You mean—trap another spirit?" Triss asks. He nods. "I'm not sure. I think the curse actually wasn't originally intended to work the way it did—but Geralt wasn't human. Witchers are mutated with magic, and that warped the curse."

"So if the other person were a regular human…" Jaskier prompts.

"It might just vanish you," she says. "With the curse swallowing your spirit."

Jaskier wets his bottom lip. "Not ideal. Would you be willing to look into it?"

What?

Triss glances at the figurines. "What's he saying?"

"He wants to know if I'm sure," Jaskier tells her. "Which is something he and I can discuss at great length for many more years, Goddess willing. But I'm sure enough to want to know if it's possible."

"I'm willing," Triss answers. "I'll need time. It would be preferable if you didn't die unexpectedly."

"Bollocks," says Jaskier, "there go my plans for next week."

Fuck you.

"Yes, dear, I know." Jaskier finally takes a bite of his pie. "Thank you for all of this. What else should we know?"

Triss reaches into the folds of her dress, which are apparently concealing deep pockets, and pulls out a small bound journal.

"I've kept meticulous notes of what I learned," she explains, sliding the book over. "Here's a copy. Should something happen to me, or you wish to break the curse on your own for another reason, it should be possible with the help of another magic user. There's a lot of information, but I'll give you the highlights."

Jaskier nods, tapping his fingers on the book cover.

"The warped curse appears to be tied to the cottage itself," Triss says. "Oxenfurt was, of course, built in the bones of what was a great Elven city before the humans sacked it."

"Naturally," says Jaskier.

"And I suspect something or someone rather powerful resided here. The elves have a beautiful connection to the land." Triss glances out the window. "If Geralt wants to stay here, make sure nothing happens to the plum tree."

Jaskier follows her gaze with alarm. There's a flash of fur as two squirrels chase each other up the tree.

"What happens if it just… dies?" he asks worriedly. "Don't they do that?"

"That plum tree's been here longer than Geralt has," Triss says wryly. "Which is exactly the source of my theory, actually. I wouldn't worry about natural death."

"I see." Jaskier taps on the book again. "Thank you."

Triss nods. "I'm happy to do what I can. I'm sorry it wasn't better news."

"It means a great deal that you've been trying," he tells her honestly. "Erm, you mentioned Geralt's brothers. Is there any way to track them down?"

Triss nods again, tracing another shape into the table. "It'd be easiest come winter, when they'll all be at Kaer Morhen. I can send word to them then. What do you think, Geralt? I'm sure it'd mean a great deal to them, knowing what happened."

Yes.

"Thank you," Jaskier says. He fiddles with the fork in his hand, clinking it against the plate. "How can we repay you for all your help?"

"I'm fortunate to not be in need of much," Triss says, holding up a hand. "And I did this as a friend."

Jaskier frowns. "I'm not so egotistical as to think I can be of much help—I'm just an old bard. But I'd hate to think I did nothing to thank you for your kindness."

"I see." Triss smiles warmly. "Trust your audience, then—for me. I'd like to hear the true song one day."

Jaskier returns her expression ruefully. "How about some pie for the road, instead?"

Triss's eyes sparkle with amusement. She stands, adjusting her skirts, and says, "Goodbye, Jaskier. Goodbye, Geralt."

"Feel free to visit," Jaskier tells her honestly.

She opens a portal and vanishes through it with a rush of air, fluttering the journal on the table.

They're alone. Jaskier flips through the journal, skimming years of research and scribbled theories while the weight of it settles on his shoulders.

"Geralt," he says quietly. "Are you okay?"

I don't know.

"Yes, I suppose that's how I feel too." Jaskier closes the book. "Would you like to show me?"

… Yes.

Jaskier turns his palm up on the table. Geralt drags a touch along the gentle lines there, then up Jaskier's wrist, and it's a story of grief.

(Of Jaskier hunched over boxes in the attic, of the scarred face of a brother he'll never drink with again, of Triss Merigold changing a bandage on his neck and a little girl with his blood dripping from her teeth, of Renfri of Creyden bleeding out with her dagger still wet with his blood, of a warm mouth growing warmer with his tongue)

And it's a story from the pit of Jaskier's stomach, curling there like the mugginess of summer and smug, chirping insects in the heat of the night—

(Jaskier in the kitchen, Jaskier with snowflakes in his hair, Jaskier smelling like spilled nutmeg on his wrinkled hands, Jaskier sinking down into a bath with his mouth hung open and he wants to stay, he wants to stay—)

"Geralt," Jaskier whispers. Gods, he's aching for it. "Geralt, are you meaning to—"

Yes.

"Wait, I—" Jaskier frowns, wetting his bottom lip. "I think I can—I can hear you. Geralt, say something else—"

Jaskier.

"I can. Geralt, I—"

(Watching Jaskier in the garden from the window, his hands deep in the loam, his hands fingering the strings of his lute, his tongue flicking out to wet his lip, a new quill clamped between his teeth, his teeth flashing with a smile)

"What do you want, love?"

Touch you.

Jaskier smiles. "I know, darling. Where?"

A brush of cool air against his cheek, against the bristle of his jaw. His lips part slightly, chilled by an almost-touch.

You'd stay?

"It's—"

(A fire in the woods and a horse grazing near a bedroll, the sound of a whetting stone against silver, the sound of Jaskier's voice trembling over something pointless that he's made dramatic, Renfri of Creyden's fingers caressing his knee)

"—poetic, isn't it?"

You'd stay if it wasn't.

"That's what makes it poetic."

Geralt touches his neck, making the breath catch in his throat. The rest of him is burning, blood straining against his veins like it will raze through him, and Geralt leaves a thin trail of goosebumps wherever he finds bare skin.

His arousal is like an echo chamber, sounding and sounding until—

"Geralt," he gasps. "Geralt, I feel like I'll burst."

Okay.

"You horrible bastard." Jaskier sucks in a breath, feeling Geralt trace up to his mouth again. "I love you."

(Jaskier reading to him until his body is quiet with sleep, Jaskier patiently reconstructing Geralt's favorite Gwent deck five decades out of fashion, the useless bar on the door and the carvings of horses scattered around their home and the song in a notebook no one's ever heard)

I know. Why?

(The blanket and the dishes and the fire in the hearth and the old woman and the blood, the blood, I never want anything cruel to touch you again, I want you to forget that blood exists, I want you to touch me until I forget that I am made of blood)

I love you.

"You're the best adventure of my life. You're the greatest story I'll ever tell. You're—"

Stop. I'm not a poet.

"If you don't let me come, I swear to Melitele I'll spin sonnets about you for hours."

Bastard.

Jaskier smiles. "You fell in love with me."

Yes. Upstairs?

Jaskier opens his eyes slowly. His vision is hazy with longing—with Geralt slipping in and out, his memories and his own thick yearning.

"Don't let go of me," he whispers. "I couldn't bear it. Alright?"

Okay.

Jaskier makes his way upstairs, one hand trailing the railing and the other connected to Geralt, and he's dizzied by the thought of crawling into the bed.

His fingers trip over the buttons on his doublet, Geralt petting gently at his hair. Shudders of anticipation down his spine while he sheds his clothes.

When he touches himself, it's beneath the sheets with his nightclothes still on, listening to the creaking of the old house while Geralt is otherwise occupied downstairs. When he makes love, it's with his skin bared above the covers, hands warming everywhere they can find.

He's neither alone nor properly touched. They are shadows of things, these chills pressing relief into his overheated skin in the shapes of fingers and lips, like discerning the path of a quill before the acrid smoke.

(Jaskier's hair streaked with silver, the curve of his jaw obscured by a beard, the base of his neck where a beast would nip to sever the spine, the edge of a shoulder blade when he shrugs out of his chemise)

Beautiful.

"Flatterer," Jaskier pants, then moans when he finally wraps his fingers around his cock. He sprawls on the bed, free hand grasping ineffectually at the sheets. "Oh, Geralt, it's unbelievable—"

(Jaskier's bared throat bobbing, the thick swath of hair on his chest that tapers and leads temptingly down his soft stomach, his cock flushed and leaking within his fist)

"I wish I could see you," he says. Fuck, he thought it would help, touching himself, but it's only made it stronger. "I want to know how you look at me."

Mine.

"I know." Jaskier's eyes slip shut. He swipes his thumb over the precome beading at the tip, gently slicking himself. "I know, darling."

(A hand down his chest, along the cut of his hip. A place for teeth to go on the inside of his thigh, above the artery. A gentle caress behind his balls, pressing up curiously)

"Would you eat me up, my wolf?" Jaskier drags his teeth over his bottom lip. "You make me—want you to."

Yes.

Jaskier trails the shivering path Geralt left, pressing lightly at his entrance. "And would you let me have you, if I wanted that too?"

Yes.

"Because you're mine, too."

Jaskier.

"I'll show you—what it'd be like." His hand slows over his cock, dragging out the pleasure. "There's oil in that drawer, darling."

Geralt gets it for him, presses it into his other hand. 

"Thank you," Jaskier tells him, huffing out a laugh. "My helpful ghost."

Yours.

Jaskier uncorks the bottle, spilling a measure onto his fingers. He traces his entrance teasingly, which earns him a chilling touch pressed against his balls.

"Were you such a brat in life?" he asks, grinning lopsidedly as he presses a finger inside. "That feels good, actually, darling. It's— ah."

Gods, he's never been opposed to begging, but he'd plead for it now. For a tongue in his mouth, for it to be Geralt's—

(Fingers working him open, the beautiful flush of his cheeks and a mouth red with blood beneath it, the heaving of his chest with breath that could be cut off at the neck, he's—)

"Dying, Geralt," Jaskier pants desperately, suddenly three fingers deep and pressing up on the spot that makes his cock leak. "Oh, you could kill me like this, you could do it."

Never.

"I can hear how you think of me. I know what I look like to you." Jaskier smiles shakily, his hand stuttering as he works himself over. "I'd like to be something you love enough to ruin."

That's not love.

"I know. But it sounds a bit sexy, doesn't it?"

You want me to hurt you.

"I want to be worth something," says Jaskier, "when I'm damaged."

(A broken plate they sweep up into the trash, the tomato plants strangling each other in the yard, the thick column of a throat that bobs with intent, an ugly callous thumbing at the string of a lute)

"You broke a man's neck. Do you think you could put a hand on mine?"

To hurt you?

"To make me come, darling."

Jaskier tilts his chin up, swallowing with shaky anticipation, his fingers quivering inside him. He's slick with oil, aching for it, on the edge of tears.

The air trembles.

"It's okay," he promises softly. "It's alright, Geralt."

It happens slowly.

(It would be easier to kill him)

"You won't."

(He's beautiful, shuddering. His eyes are blue)

It's almost like being held—the gentleness of it, the affection. Jaskier closes his eyes and imagines it that way, like he imagined it when spring was nascent and Geralt first said, Mine, like a blessing.

He arches his back, straining against his fist and the fingers curving inside him, and comes when Geralt pulls away to let the air rush back into his lungs.

"Geralt," he sobs. "Oh, Geralt, I—"

He breaks off, gasping, trying to find some way to settle his breathing. There's sweat covering his entire body, cooling rapidly now that Geralt's not—

"Geralt?" Jaskier asks worriedly, staring up at the ceiling. "Are you still there?"

There's the faintest brush of air against his temple.

"Oh, thank fuck." Jaskier breathes out with relief, still rasping slightly. He fumbles with one hand off the bed and finds a discarded cloth to wipe off his stomach. "Did we overtax you, love? That was…"

The lack of response is answer enough.

Jaskier closes his eyes, feeling a sudden and deep weariness settle over him alongside the satiation. His bones ache.

"Rest with me, then," he murmurs, shifting slowly to crawl under the covers. "I'll pretend I'm holding you, hm? I'll pretend we can."

A final touch, behind the shell of his ear. The birds are singing outside, pleased with the sunshine and the state of the neighbor's flowerbeds. It's easy, then, to imagine.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier wakes after the sun has set, rousing from a fit of gentle dreaming. They were strange things, his dreams, of people he knew without having met. He briefly forgets what season it is, the severity of wrinkles on his hands.

There is something, he thinks, that he's finally understood.

"Geralt," he says. "Are you there?"

Yes, tapped into the dresser.

"Would you mind terribly if I went into town for a while, love?" Jaskier asks, smiling fondly. "There's something I need to do."

No.

"Thank you." Jaskier dresses slowly, in the clothes he was wearing before. He slips into his boots, then gathers up his key and his lute and makes his way west.

His friends are still in the tavern where he left them, which feels very odd until he remembers it must have been only a few hours. 

They look up as a worried group when he joins their table.

"Are you alright?" Priscilla asks. "What happened with the mage?"

"Everything's fine," he assures them, lifting his hands placatingly. "She was a friend, like she said."

"You look like shit," Little Eye tells him. "What did you do?"

Jaskier winks at her.

"Some things never change," she says, and makes the same disgusted face she's made for over three decades.

"I'm ready, though," Jaskier says, glancing at Shani. "To play the song."

Shani says, "What? You're messing with me."

"You can take my spot," Priscilla offers kindly. "I was just about to go up again."

Jaskier smiles ruefully and tells them, "I'd rather play it in the market, if you'll indulge me."

They all look between each other. It's Jakob who speaks up, saying, "Yeah, of course."

It takes a few moments to pay for their food and drinks, and for Priscilla to find a young bard to play in her stead, and then the five of them are trailing through the streets to the light of brilliantly flickering lamps.

As spring fades into summer, the city begins keeping the market open later by the firelight, the weather being favorable. Jaskier thinks about this—about the appropriateness of seasons, again—as he finds a spot in the grass to sit with his friends.

He clears his throat. His fingers are a little slow, his voice a little tired. It will improve the atmosphere.

It's a song about a lover. It is not a ballad, because his lover is not there. It is not a dirge, because his lover is not gone. There is silence, and sound, and the song is both. He sings about the last wisp of air before the end of a kiss and the first stretch of sunlight that warms the soil.

It is a life half-lived, that must be mourned and celebrated, perhaps in equal measure. Perhaps more in celebration, because it was life. 

It's not about Geralt, nor is it about Jaskier. The song is true, so it can't be about anything.

When he finishes, he finds that a few people have stopped to stare. An old man selling jars of honey wipes discreetly at his face from across the square.

Shani says, "It was beautiful."

Essi says, "No one else will sing it."

"That's alright," says Jaskier. He runs his fingers through the cool grass. "I did."

 

~*~

 

There have been many stories of Jaskier's life. The excitable child no one could quite cope with, the promiscuous university student and wide-eyed adventurer, the bard who made himself famous singing about things that were felt but not real.

The best one, he thinks, is this:

A man grows old in a cottage by the sea. He is alone, but he is not. He's visited by three men with six swords between them, and sometimes a father who has hung up both of his for good. On other occasions, a kind woman in a beautiful dress will appear from thin air and stop for a cup of tea.

He learns to cull the tomatoes so they may grow without harming one another. He picks enough plums to make two bottles of brandy a year and leaves the rest to the birds and squirrels, who still throw the pits at him with ungrateful fervor. All of his dearest friends have children who call him their uncle, and who have children of their own. His love is messy, and inconvenient, and he always has somewhere to put it.

When time grows small, his room is packed so full that it could burst.

"Are you scared, Uncle Julian?" asks one of the grandchildren.

"A little," he admits, smiling kindly. "But not so much that it won't be alright."

"Are you in pain?" Shani asks, her fingers on his pulse.

"No," he assures her. Geralt takes care of that, a gentle hand at his temple. "No, it just feels…"

(Like saying goodbye?)

Jaskier glances over at his dresser, where the four figurines are still in a row. His vision has faded something awful, these past few years, but he can distinguish the shapes.

"Not to you, love," he says gently. "Unless you've changed your mind?"

No, Geralt answers. Mine.

Another grandchild whispers, "What did he say?" and is shushed by a parent. 

"Alright then." Jaskier tries to sit up a little, which Shani and Essi help him do. "I have one last, very important thing to ask of you all."

Little Eye takes his hand, smiling with watery eyes. "What is it? One more round of our favorite song?"

Jaskier laughs, which rattles his chest. "Maybe tomorrow."

"Alright, I'll be serious," she says, which means that he really must look something awful. "Tell us."

"Write to Triss Merigold," he says. "Tell her to bury my heart under the plum tree."

Essi's eyes go wide as Shani's hand falls away from his wrist. 

"The curse," Shani says. "You figured it out?"

"I assure you—" Jaskier says, stopping to cough out another laugh. "I contributed very little."

"You're sure it'll work?" Priscilla asks him.

Jaskier smiles. "Let me rest a while, if you will? Talking—aggravates my lungs."

Alicja, one of Shani's children, asks, "Do you want us to read to you?"

"That'd be lovely, thank you." Jaskier's smile stretches wider. "You'll forgive me if I fall asleep?"

"Of course," she says, and he believes that they do, when he does.

 

~*~

 

There is darkness, for a while, and he dreams of things that will never be his again. The first bite of an apple, bright blue doublets with red piping, a walk with his feet in the sand.

The darkness ends as quickly as it comes, and there is a fire in the hearth again and a man with silver hair dressed in black.

The rest of the cottage is shimmering around him—blurs of people carrying boxes to the attic, the sound of something cooking in the kitchen, a vague approximation of what a table used to be.

Jaskier says, "Geralt?"

The man turns around—widened, golden eyes, with pupils like feline slits that blow out at the sight of him. He's beautiful beyond words.

"Jaskier," he says, solid enough to gather Jaskier up in his arms and bury his face in his hair. "It worked."

"Geralt," Jaskier sobs into the crook of his neck. Real, real, as real as anything that Jaskier's ever felt. "I'm here. I'm here, love. Oh, goddess, I can touch you."

Geralt noses at his temple and mutters, "You fucking terrified me. We had no idea if it'd work."

"I knew," Jaskier whispers. "I knew where my heart would go."

Geralt hums from deep in his throat. Jaskier feels the vibrations, and the hand cupping his jaw.

"Goddess, Geralt, it's a good thing I'm already dead," he jokes weakly, pulling back to get a look at the impossibly handsome cut of his jaw. "Or the sight of you would have killed me. Look at you. How do I look? Melitele, it feels good to talk without coughing."

Geralt snorts fondly. His face, rough with stubble and scars even in death, softens impossibly further with a tilt of his head.

"You look," he says, "like the day I fell in love with you."

"So the day I moved in, then?" Jaskier teases. He reaches out and taps Geralt on the tip of his nose, because he can. "Admit it, darling, you were smitten instantly."

"Hm." Geralt brushes Jaskier's hair away from his forehead. "I tried to get rid of you."

The room is starting to take shape around them—the table becomes solid, Katya the chimera reappears on the wall. Jaskier catches glimpses of tear-stained faces, Little Eye's still half-hidden by a mane of gray hair.

Jaskier snorts. "How exactly did you try to accomplish that? By doing my chores for me?"

"Inconveniently," Geralt grumbles.

"Oh, sweetheart," Jaskier dotes fondly. He presses a bright kiss to the corner of Geralt's mouth. "If that was you trying to be a scary ghost, I don't know what to tell you."

"Worked out for me in the end," Geralt murmurs, tilting Jaskier's chin up for a proper kiss. His mouth, warm and gentle, and charmingly crooked teeth that nip at Jaskier's bottom lip before pulling away.

Jaskier shudders with happiness, his eyes shining. "For both of us, darling."

Geralt hums, then thumbs at Jaskier's cheek and marvels, "It's so easy."

"What is?" Jaskier asks.

"Touching you," says Geralt. He smiles wryly. "Pick up the horse on the mantel."

Jaskier frowns, reaches behind Geralt, and puts his hand straight through the wall.

"Bollocks," he says.

"It takes practice." Geralt picks up the little wooden figurine himself, spinning it between his fingers. "Hold your hand out. Imagine what it'd feel like."

Jaskier does as he's asked, trying to remember the weight and shape of the thing. It takes three tries before Geralt is able to place it in his palm.

"This is remarkable," he says, setting the horse back in its place. "I could—do you think I could play again? I'd hoped, but…"

"—the still to Jakob's cousin," Shani is saying. "What's it say about the lute?"

Jaskier turns, watching as the cottage finally settles around him. It's suddenly awash in sound, as vibrant as if he never left at all. As if he still belongs.

Little Eye clears her throat. "He wants it left here. In the attic, if necessary, or by the door. With the decks of cards and that ratty old blanket."

"Goddess, is he sure?" Shani asks. "This thing is falling apart."

Little Eye wipes at her face. "He bought it that first year, I think. I'm sure it means something."

It does. Jaskier rests his head on Geralt's shoulder.

"Do you wanna get their attention?" Geralt asks. 

There are grandchildren in the kitchen, playing with an upturned crate of knick-knacks he's collected over the years. Triss is responsible for the noise, though, as she kneads a ball of dough. 

"Not yet," Jaskier says. "Let me remember them like this."

Geralt presses a kiss to his temple with a gentle hum. 

Jaskier wanders through his cottage, this beautiful, best home of his life. The creaking bones that sheltered him and the pipes that began to drip in their final years, until Geralt grumbled and figured out how to get into the walls to fix them. The attic with generations and generations of stories his legacy will contribute to, the window that catches the best hours of sunlight.

He's careful to avoid bodies as he goes—countless loved ones, Priscilla with her hand on the back of a sniffling child, Jakob rubbing the back of his neck as he stares incredulously at the bags of bathing herbs he's just discovered hidden under the mattress—until he tucks himself back under Geralt's arm by the fire.

The plum tree has grown impossibly larger, with weeping leaves that dance in the autumn wind. It's the proper season for ghosts. Jaskier does not feel cold.

"Have you seen my lute, love?" he asks, turning his head. Geralt gestures to the door. "Ah, thank you. Let's see."

It takes him a moment to properly pick the stubborn thing up, but once it meets his hands, they remember each other like a horse running home.

And, oh, it hurts. 

The swelling love in his chest, the quiet gasp when someone looks their way. 

"It's been a good life," Jaskier tells his lute, the family that cannot hear him, the man with sunlight eyes who always will. "I hope you're not tired of this one yet."

Slowly, soot-stained fingers slipping through the strings before they catch and resettle, he begins to play "The Fishmonger's Daughter."

Little Eye brings a hand to her mouth, stifling a mournful sound, or perhaps a laugh.

(He'll pretend it was a laugh.)

"You're here," she says aloud, looking right through him. Like she’s been waiting. "Julian, you're home."

Jaskier turns his face up to smile at Geralt, who tilts his head and smiles back. 

He drifts contentedly into the chorus, indulging himself as the rest of the cottage gathers round.

It's a bawdy song—the first he and his friends ever performed together. It's had them thrown out of respectable inns and playing in seedy taverns below their typical repute, and he belongs to it like it belongs to them.

Priscilla settles into Jaskier's reading chair with her own lute in hand and begins to play alongside him in harmony. Little Eye moves to sit at her feet and rasps along with her beautiful, aging voice, winking up at her with a sharp grin. 

The older grandchildren, who have no doubt learned the words from sneaking out at night, as he learned them, shock their parents and delight their younger siblings by teaching them how to join in too. Soon the whole cottage is alive with music and the scent of baking bread.

"This is gonna go on for a while, isn't it?" Geralt asks drily.

Jaskier loops back to the first verse and cheerfully informs him, "All night, if we're lucky."

"Hm," says Geralt, and leaves him to pluck a book from the shelf. He nestles himself in the corner, closest to the unravelling blanket and the plum tree, and reads along with The History of the World.